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5 Steps to Effective Employee Disciplinary Action

Disciplining an employee can be uncomfortable for everyone involved, but some types of workplace behavior are serious enough that they need to be addressed. Employee disciplinary action refers to a set of policies intended to improve employee behavior, such as a performance improvement plan (PIP) or corrective action plan.

To avoid infringing on employee rights, it’s important to apply disciplinary actions fairly and consistently with a formal discipline policy. Here’s what you need to know about disciplinary action, including what situations call for it and how to apply it.

What Is an Employee Disciplinary Action?

Employee disciplinary action is your response to issues of workplace misconduct, from minor infractions to major code of conduct violations. Employee disciplinary action can range from a verbal or written reprimand to suspension and termination.

Many organizations use a progressive discipline process, in which each incident of a behavioral issue results in an increasingly serious response, but some violations may be serious enough that they call for immediate termination.

For employee performance issues that don’t involve misconduct, the best option may be a performance improvement plan, in which the employee is given a firm timeframe and milestones for addressing their behavior.

Examples of Employee Disciplinary Action

Employee disciplinary action can come in many different forms, so it’s important to apply your company policies fairly. The response to each type of employee misconduct should be outlined in your employee handbook or disciplinary action policy.

Here are some of the most common examples of disciplinary action:

  • Verbal warning: A verbal warning is usually reserved for less serious issues. For example, a manager might schedule a disciplinary meeting to address tardiness or absenteeism. Even if the warning is delivered verbally, it’s important to make note of it in the employee’s personnel file for future reference.
  • A written warning: A written warning is more serious and is usually provided if the employee’s behavior or work performance hasn’t improved after receiving a verbal warning. The write-up should include specific details of the incident, and the employee should be asked to sign it in front of a witness.
  • Demotion or reassignment: This could take the form of a pay cut or a removal of certain privileges or responsibilities. The employee may be moved to another department, or stripped of rank or status in relation to their coworkers.
  • Suspension: A disciplinary suspension involves removing an employee from the work environment for a number of working days, usually without pay.
  • Termination: This is usually the last step in a progressive discipline plan, and it should only be undertaken for serious or recurring violations that haven’t been solved through other types of disciplinary action.

Each disciplinary decision should be taken with care to avoid violating the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and other federal laws. Your HR team may need to conduct a thorough investigation of any incident to avoid the risk of legal action.

Situations That Require Employee Disciplinary Action

Employee disciplinary action: employees talking to each other

Employee disciplinary actions shouldn’t be taken lightly, but they’re an important tool for addressing issues with an employee's job performance or workplace behavior. The key is knowing which disciplinary process to apply to each type of behavior.

Here are a few common situations that require disciplinary action:

  • Dress code violations: Although this may seem like a minor issue in a casual workplace, it can be a major problem in customer-facing positions, or in roles where protective gear is required to ensure workplace safety.
  • Attendance: Minor attendance issues can be addressed with a verbal or written warning, but recurring cases of tardiness or absenteeism may require additional action. You can use absence management software to track attendance issues and determine whether or not an incident requires disciplinary action.
  • Insubordination: Insubordination can occur when an employee doesn’t follow instructions or refuses to adhere to the terms of their contract. Insubordination can damage labor relations between management and the workforce.
  • Sexual harassment: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances” and other conditions that create a “hostile or offensive work environment.” Instances of either verbal or physical harassment may be considered unacceptable behavior.
  • Theft or fraud: Fraud, embezzlement, and other illegal or criminal behavior may be grounds for immediate termination.

Remember, even in the most serious cases, employees still have legal protections, and disciplinary action should never be used for retaliation, intimidation, or punishment for poor performance. When in doubt, ask your human resources team for advice.

5 Employee Disciplinary Action Best Practices

For the best outcomes, ensure that your organization’s disciplinary policy is proactive, not reactive. Having a plan in place to address an employee’s work misconduct means that individual team members don’t have to make it up as they go along. 

Here are five best practices to keep in mind when creating a disciplinary policy.

1. Have a clear code of conduct.

Even small organizations need a company culture and a set of guidelines to abide by. Don’t rely on unwritten rules to inform your disciplinary policy. Write everything down, from your dress code to your expectations around attendance and performance.

If an employee breaks the code of conduct, you can point to the employee handbook to explain why they’re receiving a formal write-up or suspension.

2. Provide appropriate workplace training.

Some behavioral issues arise when coworkers don’t share the same expectations or norms around racial, gender, or cultural diversity in the workplace.

Consider requiring diversity and inclusion (DEI) training for all employees, or hosting a workshop on soft skills like conflict resolution. Having a proactive anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy can reduce unacceptable behavior in the workplace.

3. Follow a performance management process.

Employee performance and misconduct are two different things, but your performance management process should go hand-in-hand with your disciplinary policy.

Use standardized performance review templates to deliver feedback consistently, and check in with your employees on a regular basis, not just once a year.

This is a great opportunity to raise minor issues, such as tardiness, and deliver a verbal warning before they become major issues.

4. Document everything.

Your employee’s file should contain a record of every disciplinary action, from the major to the minor. Not only does this allow you to see how an employee’s performance has improved over time, it also serves as a paper trail if anything escalates.

It’s important to show that you gave the employee the same opportunity to address the issue as you would any other employee.

5. Adhere to employment law.

Even when employee disciplinary action is necessary, it can open your company up to accusations of unequal treatment or wrongful termination. For example, if an employee is on a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), they have certain protections against termination and reassignment.

And if an employee’s performance issues are related to a disability, they may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

When delivering a notice of disciplinary action, let employees know if they have the right to appeal the decision to your HR department.

Improve Employee Discipline With Pulpstream

Entrepreneur talking to her employees

Employee disciplinary action can be used to address a range of behavioral issues in the workplace, from dress code violations to insubordination. By having a clear disciplinary policy and code of conduct, you can avoid claims of bias and ensure that employees know what’s expected of them on the job.

Pulpstream makes it easy to handle incidents in the workplace, from disciplinary issues to workplace safety claims. Our no-code, cloud-based software enables you to create your own corrective action plans, performance review templates, and more.

By automating HR processes, you can ensure that key stakeholders are notified any time there’s an incident, and that every disciplinary action is recorded.

Contact us today to get a 30-minute demo and learn more!