How to Apply Progressive Discipline to Address Problem Employees

by Ralph Heibutzki
Early intervention is important to making a progressive discipline policy succeed.

Early intervention is important to making a progressive discipline policy succeed.

Progressive discipline systems are standard tools for managing problem employees at many companies. Employees who break rules face increasingly stiffer sanctions -- ranging from oral warnings, to written warnings, and finally, termination. Too often, however, this system is undermined by lack of consistency, which is the bedrock of a successful disciplinary system. Managers can also maximize progressive discipline by viewing it as a collaboration to improve performance, rather than taking a purely punitive approach.

Act Decisively

Difficult employees don't improve without some type of decisive intervention, asserts organizational psychologist Dr. David G. Javitch, in a May 2009 commentary for "Entrepreneur" magazine. Whether you're a business owner or a manager, you must act decisively when bad behavior surfaces. Most coworkers are reluctant to get involved, so managers must take the initiative in turning negative situations around. Otherwise, companies convey the impression that employee misbehavior won't be corrected, let alone noticed.

Address Root Causes

Managers frequently struggle to find enough time for ongoing tasks, which causes progressive discipline models to fall by the wayside, the website says. However, just ordering employees to avoid repeating such negative behaviors as missing deadlines won't solve the problem. The worker's performance issues may reflect other difficulties in his life, but you'll never know unless you ask. You can then try collaborating on a solution, which also lets the staffer know that you expect an improvement.

Coach the Employee

Letting an employee go is the worst-case scenario under any progressive discipline system. Often, however, workers don't realize how their behavior affects others, so it's important to present solid examples when you call a disciplinary meeting, Javitch says. Employees who accept your conclusions need specific feedback about what types of behaviors they need to adopt. Alternatively, workers who minimize or deny inappropriate behaviors require more intensive coaching and followup to see if their situation is redeemable.

Follow Consistent Practices

Consistency is necessary to make progressive discipline meaningful. For example, suspending an employee without pay for being 10 minutes late might be considered an excessive response, the website states, unless you've noticed repeated instances, and warned him accordingly. More relevantly, apply the same types of sanctions to all employees, so you're not accused of favoritism. This way, you're less likely to wait until individual problems blow up, and react by imposing an extreme punishment that further undermines morale.

Other Considerations

Most workers want to please their bosses, so that motivation often makes further sanctions moot. However, you shouldn't ease up on employees who won't make the changes that you require, Javitch states. Termination is the appropriate response to avoid dragging down morale and cohesion. Supervisors should keep documenting problems, and give the employee one more chance to shape up. If the outcome is negative, the company still benefits from addressing the situation in a logical, consistent manner.

About the Author

Ralph Heibutzki's articles have appeared in the "All Music Guide," "Goldmine," "Guitar Player" and "Vintage Guitar." He is also the author of "Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton," and holds a journalism degree from Michigan State University.

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