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Human resources management is at its toughest when it’s time to say goodbye to an employee. Termination is a difficult, potentially emotional action; what’s more, it exposes your company and managers to risk—even if it’s for cause. That’s where progressive discipline can help.

Progressive discipline is reacting to an underperforming or poorly behaving employee with escalating consequences. These could lead up to termination, but before that, PD gives employees the opportunity to improve, and demonstrates the company is acting in good faith. Additionally, if the process eventually leads to termination, your firm is protected by thorough documentation showing the firing came after cause.

Progressive discipline begins with a conversation, one designed to halt underperformance or undesirable behavior before it gets out of hand. Many human resources manager view this initial step as a precursor to PD, making the staff aware management isn’t satisfied with their work. It can be the start of regular coaching or check-ins to help boost the employee’s performance. Through clear communication, strong guidance and performance tools, the employee is offered resources to help boost their work, and additional steps may not be necessary.

If, after this first step, the employee fails to meet the clearly stated guidelines, the next step generally is a verbal warning, through which the employee is made aware additional steps may follow. After that may come a written warning, presented to the employee to sign off on it. The written-warning step maybe a good stage to introduce a Performance Improvement Plan—this is a formalized action plan laying out strategies for betterment—and allow the employee in question to address their concerns and possible obstacles to improvement. Typically a PIP gives a specific time period (at least 60 days) and contains spelled-out, realistic goals for the employee. It is important to note a PIP is appropriate for performance-related issues (such as improving typing skills), and not certain behavior problems—for example, if an employee threatens violence, or becomes violent, immediate termination makes more sense, for the safety of your other employees.

Some important tips to consider:

  • Implement PD as general guidelines. It is important that progressive discipline be internal policy at managers’ discretion, rather than set-in-stone policy that must be followed in every case. Yes, make it clear in the employee handbook that poor performance or behavior will have consequences, but do not spell out specific steps of an escalation process. If you do tell employees that they will be subjected to specific steps, or entitled to a specific process, they can hold you to that and even claim discrimination if other steps are taken.
  • Write down everything. Even if you’re issuing a verbal warning, record that in the employee’s personnel file, to later demonstrate your HR services or representative clearly communicated a problem to the staffer. Then, document in detail the proceedings at additional disciplinary steps. If it’s not recorded, it didn’t happen.
  • Make consequences clear. At every stage, spell out in no uncertain terms what the next steps will be if the employee fails to meet their stated objectives. Then, if the issue isn’t resolved, keep your word and take that next step, whether it’s a final written warning, suspension, termination or other result.
  • Have another person present. If it’s possible or practical, have another HR representative or manager at the meeting. Having another witness protects you from additional risk, should the staffer later claim what went down in the PD meeting was different from what you say happened.
  • Stick to the facts. You’re disciplining an employee because they behaved poorly or didn’t perform up to snuff. Focusing on the facts of the case—not emotions—gives the employee a clear path forward, and it protects your company should the employee later challenge you on any of the steps in the process.
  • Be compassionate, not apologetic. It may be difficult not to feel empathy for the person being terminated, and that’s okay. However, be firm that this is the necessary consequence, and don’t expose your company to additional action by even hinting at fault through words of apology. This is especially important if you’re at the final step of terminating the employee. If you are properly following your PD policy, and the employee has failed to improve or correct their behavior, they should not be surprised if that shortcoming leads to termination.

Terminating employees is one of the more challenging aspects of human resources management. If you have any additional questions or concerns, we’re here to help—feel free to contact us and we’ll be happy to talk.