Progressive Discipline

Progressive discipline (also referred to as performance improvement plans or get well plans) is a process for dealing with job related behavior or performance that does not meet the already communicated expectations. The purpose is to assist the employee to understand there is a performance problem and give an opportunity to improve.

From the employer’s standpoint, it is the best way to protect against wrongful termination lawsuits. It allows the employer to ensure that any employee fired because of poor performance was treated fairly and in accordance to company’s policies.

Verbal Reprimand: When deficiency is discovered, it should be brought to the employees attention immediately. Be sure to give the solutions to problem and ask the employee if they understand. Make notes of this conversation of what was said and when. Keep this in the employees personnel file to revert back to if further issues were to occur.

Written Warning: If the problem persists after the verbal warning, the next step is to issue a written warning. The written warning should make mention of the prior verbal reprimand. This should describe the who, what, when, and where as to the issue. It should also describe what the standard should be. Lastly, it should state the next step if the problem continues. This can be suspension, final written notice, or probation status. Remember the primary purpose is to correct the behavior. The choice here should be what you feel would best accomplish the goal of correcting the behavior. Consistency is the key. Inconsistency is what causes company’s the most trouble. Someone will come up with a legal reason of why you treated someone else different. Progressive discipline must be followed consistently given similar situations.

Suspension: The question of how long and should it be with pay usually arises here. As for the length of the suspension, there is no right or wrong. It is the consistency that remains the most important. The pay question depends on whether the suspension is for investigative purposes of guilt. If so, you may want to pay using the adage of innocent until proven guilty. Suspension can also be a direct tool, skipping the verbal and written, if there is a direct violation of zero tolerance. This zero tolerance can include illegal activities, clear and present threat to another employee, investigative purposes of determining fault, and any major incident causing serious loss to the company. Consistency is the key.

Final Notice/Probation: If performance does not improve, then issue the final written notice which can include a probationary period. The notice should reference exhibits of the previous warnings (attach copies), indicate specific areas in which the employee must improve, and specify the time period within which the corrections must be made.


Before termination, ask if there is a contractual relationship between the company and employee and whether the discipline is in anyway related to a workers comp. issue. If no, then it is good to proceed. If yes, you can still survive a challenge to a termination, but you must be able to prove the circumstances surrounding the particular case to justify your actions.

What if the employee refuses to sign the written notice, final notice, of termination? It’s no less valid if they refuse to sign. The date of issue should be put on the notice and that the employee refused to sign.

Advantages of Progressive Discipline done right:

  • Help keep companies out of legal trouble
  • It will help avoid the consequences of allowing workplace problems to continue to go unchecked
  • Help managers achieve higher and more productive performance out of the employees
  • Avoid expensive replacement costs
  • Ensures consistency and fairness in dealing with employee problems
  • Enhances communications between managers and employees
  • Installs the groundwork for fair and legally defensible employment termination for those who cannot or will not improve

For more information on what steps to follow when disciplining an employee or for other employee related issues, call Cartwright Law LLC at 615.473.1006.