HR Tip of the Week

Posted on  |  Performance management

What to Do When You Need to Discipline an Employee

Employee Discipline

When an employee's conduct or performance becomes an issue, an effective disciplinary process can help correct the problem and prevent it from reoccurring. The following are some guidelines for preventing and responding to performance and conduct concerns.

Before Problems Occur:

Take steps to help prevent problems from occurring, such as clearly communicating workplace rules and procedures so that employees know exactly what is expected of them. It is a best practice to maintain an employee handbook for this purpose. In addition, provide feedback regularly and inform employees of performance expectations when setting goals and conducting performance reviews. Employee and supervisor training can also help prevent workplace issues.

When Performance and Conduct Issues Occur:

Despite your best efforts to maintain a positive, productive work environment, issues do occur. When they do, handle the situation promptly, fairly, and consistently.

  • Assess the whole picture. Before you take disciplinary action against an employee, make sure you have a full understanding of the issue and that you have an accurate and impartial assessment of the employee's performance. Review the employee's goals and reflect on previous performance discussions. If the issue is related to alleged wrongdoing in the workplace, you generally have a responsibility to conduct a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into the allegations.
  • Comply with nondiscrimination laws. Avoid judging the employee's performance based on any protected factors. For example, various federal, state, and local laws provide job-protected leave to employees. If an employee takes leave under one of these laws, adjust performance expectations to account for the leave. For instance, if an employee is expected to make 100 sales within six months, but takes three months of job-protected leave, his or her sales target should be reduced to 50.
  • Determine the form of discipline. If you determine the employee violated your performance or conduct standards and disciplinary action is appropriate, decide what form of discipline to take. Consider the severity of offense, the employee's past performance and conduct, and how you have treated other employees in similar situations (to ensure consistency). Employee discipline can take many forms, including but not limited to:
    • Counseling and training. Typically the first step in the disciplinary process, counseling generally involves a conversation between the supervisor and employee. Make sure you document counseling discussions, including the date and substance of the conversation. Training may be appropriate when the employee is failing to meet job expectations because of a missing or underdeveloped skill.
    • Verbal warning. A verbal warning is generally tied to potential consequences if the behavior or performance issue continues. Document verbal warnings and store the documentation in the employee's personnel file.
    • Written warning. A written warning involves more formal documentation of the conduct or performance problem, including the steps the employee agrees to follow in order to correct the problem, the timeframe with which the employee is expected to improve, and consequences for failing to do so. Have the employee sign the written warning and retain it in his or her personnel file.
    • Suspension and termination. These are the two most serious forms of discipline and are generally limited to serious performance or conduct issues or repeated failure to improve performance. Given the impact and risks of suspensions and terminations, consider requiring that these decisions be reviewed by upper management, human resources and/or legal counsel.
  • Give yourself flexibility. Reserve the flexibility to take disciplinary action based on the facts and circumstances of each case. For example, don't imply that a verbal warning will be given for all first offenses no matter how severe. In your employee handbook, make clear that violating the company's conduct and performance standards may result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination, and that the employer reserves the right to decide what disciplinary action to take in any given situation.

Disciplinary Meetings:

Once you have decided on the form of disciplinary action you will take, conduct the disciplinary meeting. Here are some general guidelines and best practices:

  • Keep it private. Hold the discipline meeting in a private location, away from co-workers.
  • Have a witness. Have the employee's manager conduct the meeting with another company representative present as a witness.
  • Be straightforward. While it may be helpful to remind the employee of their strengths, remember the purpose of the discipline meeting is to pinpoint and improve upon poor behavior. To accomplish this goal, tell the employee exactly what the problem is, what steps he or she must take to correct it, and the consequences of failing to do so.
  • Remain calm. The employee may respond with anger, intimidation, complaints, blame, silence or an unwillingness to acknowledge the problem. Remain calm, regardless of the employee's reaction.
  • Be respectful. Let the employee know that you want him or her to improve and that you are willing to help. Provide the employee with an opportunity to respond and make sure to listen to his or her concerns. Remember to be sensitive to the employee's feelings and be constructive in your use of criticism.
  • Explain impact to the company. By explaining how an employee's misconduct or performance affects the company, you are focusing attention on the welfare of the business, rather than on the employee's personal attributes.
  • Work with the employee to find a solution. Explain that you are trying to help the employee improve their performance or behavior. This approach allows the employee to view the situation as an opportunity to succeed, instead of feeling he or she has been set up for failure.
  • State the consequences. Be clear on the consequences if the employee fails to improve. At the conclusion of the meeting, confirm that the employee has fully understood the purpose of the meeting and the expectations for improvement.
  • Provide employees with an opportunity to comment. Give employees the opportunity to comment and ask them to acknowledge the discussion in writing. While the employee may not necessarily agree with the disciplinary action, their acknowledgment serves to document that the employee has received and reviewed the notice of disciplinary action and cannot later allege that he or she was unaware of the problem.

After the meeting, follow up with the employee and look for improvements in performance or behavior. If their performance has not improved, further disciplinary action may be necessary.


While delivering discipline is difficult for any employer or manager, an effective disciplinary process is necessary to ensure a fair and productive work environment.

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