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Does Progressive Discipline Work? A Guide for Managers

Effectively managing employee behavior and performance is critical to maintaining a productive and harmonious workplace. Misbehavior and poor performance can be costly in the long term. Workplace conduct alone costs businesses tens of billions of dollars annually.

And it’s dismayingly common. Norstat conducted a survey of office staff to understand experiences of misconduct in the workplace. From this survey, Neta Meidav, CEO and cofounder of Vault Platform, highlighted the systemic nature of the issue, revealing almost half of office workers (48%) experience workplace misconduct at least once per month.

Issues can include an enormous range of problems which include but not limited to:

  • Dress code violations
  • Harassment or discrimination
  • Prohibited use of personal devices
  • Tardiness and absenteeism
  • Productivity that fails to meet the established specifications
  • Prohibited fraternization between employees (especially managers and direct reports)
  • Any other criminal or illegal behavior.

Effective management of employee conduct is crucial for maintaining a healthy work environment. One approach that has garnered considerable attention for its effectiveness is progressive discipline. This approach focuses on correcting behaviors through a series of consequences, rather than using disciplinary measures.

CoAd O-Dot What is Progressive Discipline?

Progressive discipline is a process employers use to address employee performance or behavior. It's called "progressive" because the disciplinary action for misconduct or poor performance typically increase in severity with each offense.

“Progressive employee discipline systems are the most prevalent discipline systems in America’s workforce today,” write researchers from the University of Central Florida (UCF) in a review of progressive discipline systems in Florida. “These systems entail three or four steps, with each successive step usually resulting in more severe penalties for the same offense or more severe offenses.”

How Progressive Discipline Stands Out

Progressive discipline focuses on giving individual employees multiple chances to improve their behavior or performance before resorting to severe consequences. This approach often leads to positive outcomes for both parties, such as improved job performance and reduced turnover. That’s because progressive discipline stands out in several ways:

Incremental Approach:

Progressive discipline operates on a step-by-step approach with the goal of correcting employee behavior or performance issues. Since this approach begins with mild interventions, only progressing to more severe actions if necessary. The gradual escalation allows employees to understand the seriousness of their behavior and provides them with a fair chance to improve.

Improvement Over Punishment:

Progressive discipline differs from punitive methods by focusing on improvement over punishment. Instead of penalizing employees for their mistakes, it aims to identify the root causes and help employees make positive changes. This approach seeks to understand underlying issues and provide the necessary support and guidance for improvement.

“These systems allowed the non-compliant employee to correct his/her behavior,” write the UCF researchers. As a result, it can foster a more collaborative and less hostile work environment.

Documentation and Consistency:

Thorough documentation is a necessity in progressive discipline. By recording each step in the process, businesses can ensure consistency and fairness, while protecting themselves from legal issues. This detailed record-keeping shows a commitment to fair treatment and provides a clear action plan for addressing employee behavior or performance problems.

When every step is documented and followed, it reduces the risk of claims of unfair treatment or discrimination. This consistency ensures that all employees are held to the same standards and that any disciplinary actions are based on evidence rather than subjective judgment.

Implementing Progressive Discipline: Use a Step-by-Step Approach

Progressive discipline typically involves a well-structured series of sequential steps designed to be proportionate to the offense. Depending on the problem, it’s possible to skip early steps or to stop after only the first step.

For example, if a team member engages in behavior that indicates they are a clear and present danger to others, the company might skip directly to Step 4 or Step 5. By contrast, if the issue is relatively minor, and the employee corrects the behavior after a single verbal warning, no further action will be taken.

Verbal Warning:

The first step in this approach is the verbal warning. This involves having an informal conversation with the employee about the issue. This should be a private, respectful discussion aimed at understanding the root cause and providing guidance for improvement.

Written Warning:

After the verbal warning, the next step is issuing a formal written warning if the issue does not improve. This written document outlines the specific problem, previous discussions, and expectations for improvement. It serves as an official record of the issue and the actions if improvements are not made.

The employee must acknowledge receipt of the written warning. This shows that the employee understands the seriousness of the issue and expectations moving forward.

Final Warning:

If the issue persists, a final written warning is issued. This step highlights the seriousness of the situation and the potential consequences if improvement is not made.


In cases where previous warnings have not led to improvement, a temporary suspension without pay may be necessary. This step underscores the gravity of the issue and is intended to give the employee time to reflect on their actions.


As a last resort, termination may be necessary. This decision should only be made after careful consideration and with thorough documentation.

Throughout the progressive discipline process, it is important to offer support and resources to help employees improve. This may include additional training, coaching, mentoring, or access to employee assistance programs.

Additionally, accurate and detailed documentation is a cornerstone of progressive discipline. Each step taken, from verbal warnings to termination, should be documented with dates, times, and specific details. This documentation serves as a record of the company's efforts to address the issue fairly and consistently.

Progressive Discipline, Like All Approaches, Involves Tradeoffs

Progressive discipline may be the most common and one of the most effective approaches to workforce disciplining, but it’s not the only one. However, every approach involves trade-offs with both upsides and downsides.

 “Progressive discipline policies are a bit of a double-edged sword,” Dan McCoy, a partner with the law firm of Fenwick & West, told the Society for Human Resource Management.

“On the one hand, if such policies are mandatory, [requiring the employer to] follow a series of steps before certain terminations occur, the policies arguably hinder an employer’s ability to take swift termination action. On the other hand, such policies can go a long way to helping—indeed, forcing—an employer to build a strong nondiscriminatory and/or nonretaliatory basis for a termination or other adverse employment action, through performance improvement plans, warnings and the like.”

 Other approaches to discipline include:

Affirmative or Positive Discipline.

Focuses on reinforcing desired behaviors through a combination of counseling, mentorship, recognition, and rewards rather than punishing negative behaviors. While this approach can boost employee morale, it may not be able to correct serious issues if not combined with corrective and (in some cases) punitive measures.

Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs).

A formal process that outlines specific goals and timelines for employees to improve their performance, often with regular reviews and feedback. This highly structured approach creates clear expectations, but it can be time-consuming and stressful for the employee, leading to reduced engagement.

At-Will Employment.

Allows employers to terminate employees at any time without cause, as long as it is not illegal (e.g., discriminatory reasons). This provides flexibility for employers to manage their workforce and address issues swiftly, but it can create job insecurity among employees and, if perceived as overly harsh or applied inconsistently, may lead to higher turnover and reduced loyalty.

Ultimately, when implemented well and wisely, progressive discipline offers a powerful tool for HR leaders and professionals to address employee behavior and performance issues effectively while still fostering a positive and supportive workplace environment.

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