• Retention

  April 4, 2023

Progressive Discipline

To operate efficiently, most businesses follow workplace rules, policies and standards. In small businesses, enforcement of rules is often done on a casual basis by dropping a few well-placed hints in an employee’s direction. However, this type of communication is at best poor, especially when dealing with the uncomfortable task of having to discipline an employee.

3 min read

Having a progressive discipline system can make disciplining your employees fair and effective. Employees need to know the consequences of unacceptable behaviour in advance so don’t wait until a crisis to set up your program. Keep in mind that behaviour must be culpable, or “at fault” meaning that it should be deserving of blame and/or injurious as well as controllable by the employee and that your progressive discipline program should be developed with the aid of legal counsel.


  • Putting a stop to unacceptable behaviour
  • Retaining the employee as a respected and productive member of your team
  • Ensuring the fair, equal and justifiable treatment of all your employees in regards to unacceptable behaviour and repercussions for that behaviour


Progressive discipline is the act of disciplining your employees in incrementally greater forms of severity. It is an established system where the severity of the consequence increases with each infringement of the rules or standards. Typically, the progression is:

  1. Verbal warnings
  2. Written warnings
  3. Suspension (Typically, you suspend with pay in non-union environments and suspend without pay in union environments)
  4. Termination

Due to the complexity of suspension and termination, please seek legal counsel in applying these steps as disciplinary measures.

In deciding to implement a progressive discipline program, the system must apply to all employees in a consistent manner. A fair policy means discipline must be applied to all employees in an unbiased way. Fair discipline is also easier to defend and justify in a legal setting, should the need arise.


  • Ensuring employees are aware of workplace policies and standards; and the consequences of inappropriate behaviour
  • Giving employees notice that there is a behaviour issue or deficiency and thoroughly explaining your expectations. This would include providing the employee an opportunity to explain his/her behaviour.
  • Providing an opportunity for the employee to change his/her behaviour, possibly through coaching
  • Including a method of measurement so all parties know when appropriate changes have been achieved
  • Agreeing on a time frame for achievement including a follow-up date for discussion.
  • Ensuring the employee is aware of the consequences should the prescribed changes not be achieved.
  • Documenting each step of the way.

After a specified time period (six months or a year) passes without another infraction, some progressive discipline policies clean the employees’ record. Any later infractions will start the process again with an oral warning. This is something you should decide before implementing your policy so that all employees are treated in the same manner when going through the process of discipline.

Some cases of misconduct are so severe that you may wish to skip some steps in the process. For example, assaults, stealing, gross insubordination, etc., might all justify immediate action. But don’t fire anyone on the spot! Termination is a serious action and not to be done in haste. You need to investigate and confirm what happened and who was responsible. In the event that you have any questions or concerns regarding termination consult legal counsel in order to take the appropriate precautions. You might proceed to step 3, and suspend the employee pending a thorough and immediate investigation. Your actions beyond that will be governed by the outcome of your investigation. It may justify termination; or a suspension may be deemed adequate, with the consequence for similar or repeated behaviour being termination.

When implementing progressive discipline, remain consistent in your approach and thorough in your documentation. To maintain the integrity and value of your program, treat all employees fairly, respectfully and equally. Ensure that all progressive disciplinary meetings are held in a private location free from interruption. By following a pre-set process, both you and your employees will be fully aware of behaviour expectations and the consequences should your workplace standards or rules not be met.

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