Employers Resource

Using the Four Basic Steps of Progressive Discipline to Instruct Instead of Punish

Establishing discipline procedures is critical to the effective enforcement of work rules. For numerous reasons, many employers adopt a progressive discipline system, which imposes increasingly severe penalties for repeated offenses.

One of the biggest advantages of progressive discipline is not actually about punitive discipline, however. It is its ability to help employees improve their behavior or performance through effective and structured coaching from their supervisors. By using the four major steps of progressive discipline to instruct and help your employees, you are setting your business up for greater success.

Informal Verbal Warning

An informal warning is when an employee is verbally told to correct the behavior. Informal warnings are always documented but do not go into the employee’s personnel file as a formal notice. Remember, if it isn’t written down, then it didn’t happen. It is recommended that supervisors keep a notebook to write down conversations with employees to be referenced later, whether for disciplinary reasons, to celebrate later improvement,  

This informal conversation is a great opportunity to address the issue while giving the employee an opportunity to correct the issue. Depending on the relationship between a supervisor and employee, it also gives the employee a chance to explain any factors, whether from their personal life, or in the workplace, that might be impacting their performance. Utilizing this informal step allows the conversation to be constructive and informative and not feel punitive for the employee, which makes it more likely that they will happily correct the issue moving forward.

Formal Verbal Warning

A formal verbal warning occurs when the employee begins to show a pattern of negative behavior or a rule has been violated. This verbal warning should be documented and may be placed in the employee’s personnel file. The oral warning should include disciplinary actions that will follow if behavior does not improve as well as a follow up date.

When making a formal verbal warning, the supervisor should make sure to communicate the process that will lead to the employee improving their behavior. This should include affirming that they are available to support the employee, and that they truly want the employee to improve. This will help the employee move forward and feel motivated instead of punished.

Follow up should occur in either one week or a month depending on the specific behavior. At the follow up meeting, the employee should be told whether or not sufficient improvement or change has occurred. If the employee has successfully made the changes you discussed, then make sure to recognize the work they put into this.

Written Warning

If there has been insufficient improvement or change, you should go to the next step of the process—a written warning. A written warning is used to make record of the violation that has occurred as well as the warning you have given to the employee regarding the behavior or rule violation. This should be placed in the employee’s personnel file.

Depending on the specific behavior, an employee may receive one written warning or multiple written warnings. As with a formal verbal warning, each written warning should include disciplinary actions that will follow if behavior does not improve as well as a follow up date.

Like a formal verbal warning, a written warning should also come with communication between the employee and supervisor that lays out a plan for improvement. Receiving this kind of discipline can feel defeating to many employees, so it is also a good idea for the supervisor to encourage the employee while discussing this plan, especially highlighting the employee’s strengths and why the supervisor believes that improvement is attainable.

In addition, a written warning should include an expiration date. This is the time frame in which the written warning will remain active in the employee’s personnel file. This is typically six months to one year, depending on the severity of the offense. Ideally, the Manager, Supervisor and Employee should all sign and date the written warning as acknowledgement of the warning and the plan set forth to improve behavior. This is your agreement with the employee to work together in order to right the situation for the good of everyone involved.


If the other steps of progressive discipline fail to correct an employee’s behavior, or in the case of especially serious violations, the final stage of progressive discipline is termination. Termination typically results when all other disciplinary steps fail to correct the behavior. It is unfortunate when this step becomes necessary, especially after working with the employee the make changes. However, it is still better to know the employee was given chances to succeed, and that termination was necessary than to be unsure.

It’s a Process

Remember that progressive discipline is a process, not a single meeting or document. The ultimate goal should always be to correct the problem and improve the employee’s performance. In ideal circumstances, this process should be more instructional than punitive. The only way to do this is to check in often on the status of the improvement plan and work closely with the employee to ensure a positive outcome. You need to stay involved until the problem is solved.

By using progressive discipline and following these basic steps, you can both create a healthier and more instructional dynamic between management, supervisors, and employees, as well as protect your company legally through extensive documentation and consistent processes.

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