The Benefits of Progressive Discipline Policies

Employee discipline is a necessary evil for most employers. It’s never fun to do and can lead to unhappy employees. Moreover, there is always the risk that discipline will lead to discrimination or other work-related claims, whether merited or not. But the long-term consequences of neglecting employee discipline can soon out outweigh the short-term discomfort of doing so. Although there is no way to make employee discipline completely pain-free, implementing a progressive discipline policy can help alleviate some of the discomforts.

Progressive discipline policies provide many benefits to employers and employees. Along with other benefits, they provide structure and predictability to the discipline process, they set a basic set of discipline standards for managers and supervisors to follow, they help managers and supervisors document disciplinary actions, and they can be instrumental in defeating discrimination, unemployment, and other work-related claims.

What is a progressive discipline policy?

A progress discipline policy is a multi-step disciplinary process. In a typical progressive discipline policy, an employee receives a verbal warning for his or her first violation of company rules, a written warning for the second violation, a suspension for the third violation, and finally termination. Although a progressive discipline policy sets forth the usual disciplinary steps, the policy should also give supervisors and managers the freedom to deviate from the steps when necessary.

Progressive discipline policies provide structure

Employers that do not have an established progressive discipline policy are more likely to inconsistently discipline employees. This inconsistency manifests itself when employers, without a justifiable reason, discipline some employee but not others for engaging in inappropriate workplace behavior or they discipline employees more severely than others for engaging in the same behavior. These types of inconsistencies have a tendency to hurt employee morale and can increase the likelihood that employees will file employment claims against the employer.

The benefit of progressive discipline policies is that they provide the structure on which employers may rely to provide consistent discipline. A progressive discipline policy provides for distinct discipline steps of increasing severity of which both the employer and employee are aware and can anticipate. These step could include verbal warnings, written warnings, probation, suspension, and terminations. Of course, a well-developed progressive discipline policy will be tailored to the needs of the specific employer and allow employers to skip steps in the discipline process when necessary, but will provide the general structure that should be used for most discipline decisions.

Progressive discipline policies set standards for managers and supervisors


Employers with multiple supervisors or managers face the possibility that each supervisor or manager may have different ideas about how and when to discipline employees. These differences may lead to the harmful inconsistencies discussed above.

Having a progressive discipline policy can help even out the different discipline styles and tendencies of managers and supervisors. It can help encourage supervisors that are too lenient to take action earlier and discourage supervisors who are too strict from issuing levels of discipline that are too severe for the given situation. This will help prevent different groups of employees from feeling mistreated or unfairly managed, which can lead to lower productivity and higher employee turnover.

Progressive discipline policies help document discipline

With the growing prevalence of both federal and state discrimination laws, employers must proactively plan and prepare for the possibility that employees may file discrimination claims. A key component of this preparation is documenting every adverse action taken against each employee. This documentation, if done correctly and completely, becomes one of the employer’s best defenses against such claims.

Progressive discipline policies by their nature require employer to document discipline. Whether the discipline is a first step verbal warning or the final written warning, a progressive discipline policy will require that a supervisor or manager document the discipline so that there is a basis to take the next step in discipline, if necessary. Standardized discipline forms can be used to help supervisors and managers document the discipline.

Progressive discipline policies provide protection for employment claims

Every employer someday could face an employment claim, whether it is a discrimination claim, an unemployment claim, or a wrongful termination claim. The key for an employer is being able to show that they had just cause to take the action they did and that the discipline the employee received was appropriate and non-discriminatory. Having followed a progressive discipline policy when disciplining employees goes a long way to help.

First, following a progressive discipline policy shows that the employer gave the employee time to correct his or her behavior or performance. This helps undermine discrimination claims because supervisors or managers with discriminatory intent tend not to give employees opportunities for rehabilitation. This can also help in the defense of unemployment claims because it shows that the employee was given notice that termination was a possible outcome of the inappropriate behavior or poor performance.

Second, when determining if an employer has discriminated against an employee, the government agency investigating the claim will look at how the employer treated employees who engaged in the same behavior. If the employer has applied its progressive discipline policy consistently to all employees, the employer will be able to show that it in fact treated the employee the same as other employees. If the employer has not had reason to discipline another employee for engaging in similar behavior, the employer can at minimum demonstrate that it has a pattern and practice of applying its progressive discipline policy consistently and fairly.


A progressive discipline policy can be an excellent tool for helping employers managing employee and avoid and defeat employment claims. To make progressive discipline policies successful, employers must make sure that the policy is tailored to its needs, that it provides enough room to deviate from the recommended steps when necessary, and that it is applied consistently to all employees. If employers are able to successfully implement and manage discipline through their progressive discipline policies, they will find that disciplining employees does not need to be as uncomfortable as it otherwise would be. If you need help developing a progressive discipline policy for your company, please feel free to give me a call at (866) 280-5225 or send me an email at

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