HR Management & Compliance

Do You Train on Proper Progressive Discipline?

The information in today’s issue first appeared on

Background for Trainer

The disciplinary response to a problem or incident should never come unexpectedly to a worker like a bolt from the blue. The employee must be able to see, at least in hindsight, that the way for a supervisor’s action was clearly paved. And reasonable outsiders should always find discipline predictable. Following the company’s system of progressive steps to discipline for all employees whose performance or behavior is not acceptable sends a clear signal when change is needed.

Regulations that Apply

  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • Civil Rights Act Title VII
  • Civil Rights Act of 1991
  • Fair Labor Standards Act
  • Family and Medical Leave Act
  • Immigration Reform and Control Act, Jury System Improvement Act of 1978
  • National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act
  • Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act
  • Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment Act of 1974

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Typical Legal Problems/Lawsuits

When employees have had no reason to believe their performance or behavior was substandard, it’s only too easy for them to blame discipline on such other causes as:

  • Discrimination
  • Favoritism or personal whim
  • Retaliation of some sort

If a situation results in unexpected dismissal, suits could be filed for:

  • Unjust dismissal
  • Infliction of emotional distress

Compliance Tips:

  • Follow progressive steps of discipline.
  • Communicate clearly with the employee every step of the way.
  • Document all communication, even oral warnings, in writing.

Training Objectives

Trainees will be able to:

  • Describe what progressive discipline means.
  • Explain why it’s important to the company to use it.
  • Recognize the situations calling for disciplinary action and know which step to take.
  • Follow the proper procedures for each step.

Pretraining Exercise

Pass out a blank piece of paper to each trainee and tell them this is a pretraining quiz and that they aren’t to turn over the page until you say so. When everybody has received a sheet, tell them to turn it over. After they’ve reacted to the blank page, say, “Suppose that what you saw on this sheet was a termination notice. How would you feel?”

Trainees will probably say things like surprised, stunned, scared, angry. If nobody mentions lawsuits, say, “Does anybody feel like suing me? If you do, you’re like a lot of other workers. As supervisors, you need to make sure you communicate clearly with subordinates every time they break a rule or fail to meet company requirements. Today, we’ll talk about our system for handling discipline problems to keep them from growing into major situations.”

Key Training Points

What is progressive discipline?

[Trainer Suggestion: Use the definition from your company handbook or something like the following.]

Progressive discipline is a series of increasingly serious responses to repeated behavior or performance problems. It lets employees know clearly what they have done wrong, how they can correct it, and what will happen if they fail to change their behavior in the future.

What are the benefits of progressive discipline to the company?

  • Communicates standards to workers
  • Reinforces rules
  • Makes the punishment fit the offense
  • Is direct, helps prevent misunderstandings or over-reactions
  • Establishes importance of facts in a record, not hearsay or rumors
  • Helps nip problems in the bud and helps employees improve performance and/or behavior
  • Provides a clear warning system for those with serious problems
  • Establishes documentation in case of dismissal
  • Improves morale and productivity

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In tomorrow’s Advisor, we’ll go over the six steps of progressive discipline, plus we’ll showcase an online training resource of interactive courses on more than 100 key HR topics.