Progressive Discipline – A great coaching tool

The first role of a Leader is to effectively communicate.  A great leader will recognize the variety of ways they have to communicate.  Conversely, an employee wants to follow someone that knows where they are going.  Employees only want a few things out of a job, certainly pay and stability, but employees also want to contribute, they want to make sure they are doing a good job.  Training, Coaching and development tools are often used while Onboarding a new employee, but once that 90 day grace period is up how corrections are communicated are critical to developing each employee.

Many I have spoken with view the Progressive Discipline process as a means to an end.  “It’s how you fire someone, right?”  It is looked at a tool to document when employees have not performed, broken policy or exhibit unacceptable behavior.  While this is true, it does all that, the Progressive Discipline process is a much greater tool to both employees and management.

Progressive Discipline is a great coaching tool

The Progressive Discipline process dates back to the 1930’s and was instituted as a way for EMPLOYEES to know that a business would treat them fairly.  This is a policy that is designed to protect individuals from being treated differently than others with in that company and it holds all parties (both management & employees) accountable.  It is a process that forces a supervisor to be progressive with both coaching and accountability, thus improving leadership with in an organization.  A process that levels the playing field for employees because it assures them they are not being singled out and that everyone would be treated consistently.  Lastly, it is a process that should teach and hold all employees accountable for job performance, following company policy, and matters relating to company culture or work environment.

One problem is that employees generally first hear of this policy when they are in trouble.  It is referred to by the “boss” who says that “HR is making me do this, sign here”.  This is lazy management in my opinion.  I became notorious for conducting a very long employee orientation class wherever I have worked.  It is the best way to set expectations(but more on that another time).  I ALWAYS go into detail about the Progressive Discipline policy and that it is there for their protection, and I can tell you that people like hearing that.

What is Progressive Discipline?  – a quick overview

A Progressive Discipline policy exists in most companies and is usually found in the Human Resource Policy and Procedures.  It states that when employees exhibit certain actions or behaviors contrary to policy, regulations or municipal laws that the company will respond in a specific way.  Most occurrences fall under a “Progressive” category and most policy’s also list certain actions that could mean immediate discharge.  I like to refer to that section “the deadly sins” because most people understand that severe consequence are associated with it.

For the instances that fall under a progressive category, the policy outlines a course of action to take each one being more severe than the last, hence “progressive”.  This is for 2 reasons.  To guide the managers and to inform the employee of potential consequence.  The law is clear to state that the business needs to inform an employee of the consequence should they repeat that action.  Failing to do so will likely mean that you could lose in court if sued by the employee.  Losing in court can cost you a lot of money (and pride) and the court is generally on the side of the employee, so you better be prepared.  Here is a generally accepted hierarchy of the progressive steps taken.

First offense – Simple conversation, nothing for the employee to sign.  But a pointed conversation stating what was wrong and what will happen if it happens again.  Once you have done this, it is up to the employee to manage their own actions.

TIP – The manager should make notes to “record” this conversation.  You may have to prove down the road that you had this conversation and accurate notes are the accepted medium of proof.  Date and time should be included.

Second offense – Generally called a “Verbal Warning”.  This is the first official session.  You sit with the employee in a private location.  Make sure their privacy is secure and respected.  You reiterate that you spoke about this before (time & date), and that it happened again which is why you are speaking.  This time you will have something in writing speaking to the policy they broke if possible.  Again, you state what happened and what the next step will be if they repeat the action.

Third offense – Escalates to a “Written Warning”.  Same process, tell them what other times they were spoken to about this, that they did it again, and what will happen should it occur again.

In each of these instances do not scold the employee.  This is not emotional, it should be very matter of fact.  You did this, your not supposed to do that, if you do it again then this will happen.  Do you understand, thank you bye bye.  Raising your voice, using gestures or even looking angry can look bad in a court of law.  Be smart.

Each company’s policy may be different as to how many chances an employee will get prior to the last warning.  Smaller companies may terminate on second written warning, larger companies may wait until 3rd written warning and it may require a managers superior being involved.  This is for the employees protection.  It ensures that multiple people in the company are in agreement that it is a justified action.  It makes it more difficult for a manager to terminate an employee, thus creating more protection.

So why is this a good Coaching tool?
  1. This is designed to insure that an employee knows what is expected and gives ample time to correct the behavior in question.  During this time the supervisor should not be looking at this as discipline but as a corrective tool.  Perhaps it identifies where additional training is needed or makes them reassess job responsibilities and workloads.  The supervisor wants the employees to succeed in completing their tasks on time and is held accountable by their supervisor for doing so.  Clearly the supervisor should have a vested interest in making whatever happened not repeat.  This process helps clarify expectations to the employee and is a Leadership “best practice  “ It is really just an opportunity for training.
  2. Other employees are aware long before management that someone is not doing there job correctly.  They are upset by this because they work hard to meet the standards but this other person “gets away” with not doing the same.  Correcting that problem WILL be noticed by other employee’s, guaranteed.  Of course, you never tell the other employees that you wrote someone up, they notice because the problem went away.  This sends a message that all the rules/policies apply to all of the employees.
  3. Discussion of a particular policy (what ever you had to address) often leads to discussion of other policies.  The employee may come to you with questions on another policy or standard.  Welcome this, it is good discussion and will increase everyones awareness of policies.  Policies are the expectations of the company and discussing expectations is clear leadership.  Discussion leads to conformity, and conformity generally means employees are more productive.
  4. This process will create open communication in the workplace
  5. Open communication tends to decrease turnover
  6. If a team is properly Coached it tends to be more effiecient, which saves money
The Downside of the Progressive Discipline process
  1. Time demanding
  2. Must be consistently utilized throughout organization
  3. Easy for Managers to misuse
  4. Employees can “play” the system
  5. Needs an in-house examiner for escalations and approvals
  6. Can negatively affect Unemployment Insurance when not consistent
Advantages of the Progressive Discipline process
  1. Increases productivity
  2. Decreases turnover and avoids expensive replacement costs
  3. Lays the groundwork for defensible employee terminations by recording history
  4. Allows an accepted way for earlier intervention at first sign a problem is developing

Progressive Discipline is more of a mindset than a policy and it should be part of the culture in an organization.

CEO’s I work with are amazed at how many of their managers don’t know how to use this. It’s in the policy book and assumed to be used.  This is seldom even thought of until a problem erupts and then the policy is referred to like everyone uses it.  It needs to be developed into daily interactions rather than a way to rectify a problem employee in order to be effective.  Lastly, as with most of what I post, utilizing this tool effectively is directly related to your businesses ability to generate revenue.  It helps you get the most from your staff and is well worth the time investment needed.

Few other tools help you manage THE most important aspect of your business effectively as the Progressive Discipline policy.


When incorporated into a culture, it vastly improves accountability and believe me, everyone is watching.  Correction is part of training and development and is often a process.  If your organization can approach this as a tool that you can use to Coach your team better rather than a series of signatures needed prior to a termination you, your employees and the organization will be much better off.


This is a large topic yet I only touched on it here, you are welcome to contact me with any questions.

Carpe diem!


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