“You’re fired.” Language is hardly ever as direct and concise as that two-word sentence. It’s a powerful one, isn’t it? Might even make for a good catchphrase.
But “you’re fired” is rarely the right first response to an employee who has engaged in misconduct. A tendency to terminate any and every employee accused of wrongdoing can not only hurt productivity and morale, but throw your business into legal hot water in the form of wrongful termination lawsuits.
Instead, organizations should consider progressive discipline before termination. This article, written by the HR Pros in our HR Support Center, explores why, and offers some guidance about how progressive discipline works and how to use it.
Terminating employment always comes with risk, even when it’s done for good cause. You can reduce this risk by using progressive discipline. As its name suggests, progressive discipline involves a progression of disciplinary actions with escalating consequences. When used to give employees with behavioral or performance problems time and opportunity to improve, it demonstrates good faith. And if the process results in termination, you can show the termination was for cause.
“Your employee handbook should have a policy that puts employees on notice that poor performance or bad behavior will lead to discipline, but it should not lay out a specific escalation process.”
How Progressive Discipline Works
Progressive discipline generally begins with a conversation. This initial conversation is meant to nip any poor behavior in the bud. Often this conversation will be part of your regular coaching or check-ins with the employee, and some HR Professionals view this as a step before actual progressive discipline. You make the employee aware of their unsatisfactory behavior or performance, make your expectations clear, give them any guidance or tools available to help them succeed, and allow them to bring their concerns to your attention.
If the employee fails to improve after coaching, the next step is generally to give them a verbal warning and let them know additional discipline may follow if they don’t improve.
The next escalation is usually a written warning, signed off on by the employee. This is also the point at which you may want to consider a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), which is essentially a formalized action plan for employee improvement. A PIP is typically at least 60 days, has commitments from both the employee and management, and contains realistic, attainable goals. PIPs generally make more sense in situations where an employee is having performance issues rather than behavioral issues; for instance, giving an otherwise good employee 90 days to improve their typing skills makes sense, whereas giving someone even 30 days to stop sexually harassing their co-worker does not. Whether you give a simple written warning or implement a PIP, make sure you are perfectly clear as to what will happen should they fail to improve or modify their behavior.
If the problem isn’t resolved after a written warning or PIP, stay true to your word and proceed to the next step, whether that is another written warning, a final written warning, suspension, or termination.
4 Tips for Using Progressive Discipline
Finally, be compassionate, but not apologetic, particularly if you’ve reached the point of termination. If you’ve followed your internal progressive discipline policy and the employee has failed to improve, the employee shouldn’t be surprised if termination occurs.
For more HR resources and expertise, check out our HR Support Center.
Progressive discipline can keep your employees on track and your organization running smoothly, but if you lack the right internal documentation and management training controls, you could still be at risk. Organizations that use Compli’s workforce management systems have been able to shield themselves from legal liability by properly documenting disciplinary actions and corrective measures. They know that if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen. (How’s that for a catchphrase?)