The first step to implementing a progressive disciplinary program is to create an employee handbook that lays out company policies. By presenting rules and expectations clearly, you may prevent issues in the first place. While the handbook can explain the progressive discipline program, it should include a disclaimer that steps may be repeated or skipped depending on the situation to give you the flexibility to deal with each unique situation in a warranted manner. Indiana University’s Human Resources recommends using the least severe step that could fix the situation, though the lower, less severe steps should be skipped for serious offences like fighting, theft, or drug and alcohol use in the workplace.
Counseling/Verbal Warning – In situations that aren’t serious, counseling is a good first (and sometimes second) step. Counseling is informal but should still be documented as a verbal warning. Talk to the employee about their behavior and get their side of the story to ensure that there is no misunderstanding about the company’s policies. At this point, you should work with the employee to come up with a solution to the problem as well as a timeline to fix it. Make sure the employee is clear about what the problem is and that it must be fixed or another disciplinary step may be taken.
If an employee has made progress after the first counseling session but has not quite fixed the problem, you may consider holding another counseling session instead of moving to the next step.
Written Warning – Like with counseling, this step starts with talking so that the employee has a chance to explain their side of the situation before any disciplinary measures are taken. Once you have met and spoken with the employee about the problem, write a summary of the situation including the history of the problem, how the situation is currently, how the employee explains the situation. Include a plan going forward with your expectations for the employee and the consequences if these expectations are not met. These consequences can be that further disciplinary action will be taken or that this is a final warning (which will be followed by termination.) Have the employee read and sign it and keep a copy in their file.
Suspension (with or without Pay) – Many companies choose not to use this step and instead use a final written warning. Again, a suspension should only follow talking with the employee and getting their side of the story. Suspensions may be used if the situation is serious enough to require an investigation before a next step can be taken.
Termination – This could be the first step in very serious incidents – like violence, theft, or harassment – or the final step after the other steps did not produce the desired changes. If your company has a legal team (or one available through a PEO) consider consulting them to protect the company from lawsuits. Documentation of this step is crucial.
With documentation of each of the steps, your company has proof that it gave the employee a chance to correct the problem in case of a wrongful termination lawsuit. Some PEOs offer human resources services that may involve resources on how to handle problem employees or they may provide your company with a handbook. Check with your PEO to see if they can help in situations with a problem employee, or ask a PEO broker to find a provider that can help in these situations.