Progressive Discipline - How To Make It Work

-Progressive discipline is designed to provide fairness in the workplace for employees and give employers guidelines for handling employee issues.

Excerpted from Iowa Employment Law Letter, written by attorneys at Pingel & Templer, P.C.

Many employers are using progressive discipline policies. The idea is to give both employers and employees a standard of conduct and a set of consequences if that standard isn't met. Progressive discipline is designed to provide fairness in the workplace for employees and give employers guidelines for handling employee issues. The concepts behind progressive discipline make sense and seem simple, but as any employer can affirm, nothing is as simple as it seems. The following are some tips to assist you in successfully implementing your progressive discipline policy.

Tips for successful progressive discipline:


  1. Communicate the policy to employees. Employees must understand the guidelines under which their conduct will be viewed. Not only is that fair and appropriate, but it also will lead to better compliance with the policy. Make sure employees have a copy of the policy and are informed of its contents.

  3. State who's responsible for administering the policy. In most cases, supervisors will be expected to administer the policy and the human resources department will be expected to provide assistance and guidance. Those responsibilities should be delegated and set forth in the policy itself.
  4. A good progressive discipline policy will not only clearly delegate responsibility but also set forth the employer's expectations of how the policy will be administered. It will emphasize things such as honesty and consistency. It will require appropriate documentation. A good progressive discipline policy should address what''s expected not only from employees but also from those who administer the policy.


  5. Train the people administering the policy. Supervisors need to be trained to investigate matters, counsel employees, appropriately document actions taken under the policy, and work cooperatively with HR. HR must be trained to properly guide supervisors or those who have to administer the policy.
  6. Many employees called on to administer the policy may have no experience with handling the types of issues and tasks required under the policy. What may be appropriate documentation in the eyes of a supervisor may be a problem for HR. An improperly trained supervisor, for example, may issue documentation that discusses an employee's race when addressing communication issues. That could lead to complaints and even litigation by the employee.


  7. Encourage teamwork. HR employees are sometimes rule-oriented and might not fully appreciate the day-to-day struggles supervisors face. Supervisors, on the other hand, are more concerned about production. Many times, following the progressive discipline policy may produce results that affect production and the work environment. A supervisor may not understand the need for appropriate documentation and may have a difficult time handling a problem employee simply because she didn't follow the progressive discipline policy appropriately. HR usually bears the burden of informing a supervisor that she didn't properly adhere to the rule or that she must adhere strictly to the policy.
  8. That inherent conflict can be reduced by helping supervisors and HR in understanding each other's roles and in relying on each other early in the process. If HR and supervisors work together early in the discipline process, they're less likely to be at odds when decisions need to be made. If each group understands the other's concerns and needs, there''s a better probability that they'll be able to work cooperatively.


Bottom line

Even the best progressive discipline policy will cause problems if the employer's expectations aren't clearly set forth to the employees. The policy is only as good as the people who use it. As an employer, you should make sure the policy sets forth clear expectations both on how to follow it and on how to administer it. Properly training employees who will administer the policy and encouraging a work environment wherein cooperation and communication are commonplace are essential. Implementing a progressive discipline policy requires more than writing the right words down on paper. You must take appropriate steps to implement the policy in the workplace.

Copyright 2003 M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC. This article contributed by *Iowa Employment Law Letter*. Read more about the print newsletter and its editors at

IOWA EMPLOYMENT LAW LETTER does not attempt to offer solutions to individual legal problems nor does it provide legal advice. The newsletter provides general information on current developments on Iowa employment issues. Questions about individual legal problems should be addressed to the attorney of your choice. Remember to check your state's laws for more restrictive rules and regulations. For more information on state-specific employment updates written by attorneys in your state, go to:

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