As we continue to weather challenges presented by the pandemic, businesses are struggling to find new ways to operate. In addition to navigating ongoing health threats and overall uncertainty, most people are also dealing with mounting responsibilities and greater anxiety on the homefront. 

With schools going virtual and kids at home, work-life balance has become increasingly difficult. As people across the U.S. grapple with illness, death of loved ones, loss of household income, precarious reopening plans, emotional stress and anxiety due to racial injustice and equality in our communities, political divisiveness, and a constant stream of alarming headlines, employees are facing more pressure than ever before. As a result, their morale, productivity, and overall performance may be suffering. 

In the midst of it all, small business leaders are finding themselves tasked with the important responsibility of holding employees accountable to conduct or performance issues. Because employees may be struggling, we want to be sure to maintain realistic expectations; however, leaders cannot afford to excuse misconduct or let performance slip to the point that it interferes with client relationships or customer service. 

How can you be fair to individual employees during this difficult time and also maintain the health of your business? 

One way employers can answer this question is by implementing a progressive discipline policy.

What is a progressive discipline policy?

A progressive discipline policy establishes a process and guidelines that include a clear, step-by-step progression of disciplinary actions the company will take when an employee violates rules and expectations. 

Download a Free Sample Progressive Disciplinary Policy Here.

A progressive disciplinary policy looks different for every business, but it typically includes some or all of the following steps:

  1. Informal Warning(s): 

    This may look like an informal conversation to ensure the employee is aware of the infraction. It should include clear feedback and provide an opportunity for the employee to take steps to remedy their behavior. Keep in mind, even though the warning itself is just spoken it should also be documented for record-keeping purposes. 

  2. Written Warning(s): If the informal spoken warning does not inspire a positive change in the employee’s behavior, you would then issue a formal, written warning that includes an action plan with steps the employee needs to take to prevent further disciplinary consequences. It should be signed and kept in the employee’s file. Note: You may want to allow for multiple written warnings before preceding to the next step.
  3. Suspension: If the infraction is major or requires some level of investigation before taking further action, it might make sense to suspend the employee with or without pay. A suspension should be reserved for final warnings before termination.
  4. Termination: If you are unable to resolve a behavior or performance problem with an employee, you may need to terminate. It’s important to document every action and reason for the termination decision carefully.

Keep in mind, even if you implement a progressive disciplinary policy, some behavior may warrant skipping warnings, and this should be spelled out in the policy itself and communicated clearly. 

Setting expectations, providing warnings, and allowing opportunities for improvement in most circumstances does not prevent you from immediately terminating an employee for major violations of rules, such as theft, violence, or serious safety issues.

Pros and Cons of Progressive Disciplinary Policies

As with any workplace policy, a progressive disciplinary approach has inherent advantages and disadvantages.

The pros of progressive discipline are many. It starts with getting everyone on the same page with clear expectations and consequences. Employees have an opportunity to improve their behavior and they’re more likely to be held to a fair and consistent standard, which helps establish a culture of trust and accountability and tends to enhance morale. It also allows employers and managers opportunities to coach, mentor, and retain employees. 

Plus, by following a progressive disciplinary policy, you will have documented evidence that employees were given opportunities to improve prior to termination. 

On the other hand, there can also be some drawbacks to a progressive disciplinary approach. No policy is perfect; it can seem inflexible, time-consuming, and impractical for leaders and human resources to manage, especially with limited resources. It can also be difficult to implement consistently and lead to cases of real or apparent discrimination, potentially exposing employers to potential litigation. 

Plus, it can lead to the common misunderstanding that the policy implies the employer must follow the steps prior to termination, sometimes resulting in employees pushing the envelope and counting on warnings to protect them. 

When implemented properly, however, the positives of progressive discipline generally outweigh the negatives. 

Documentation is Key

Sometimes employees have difficulty understanding what they have done wrong or challenge why certain policies exist. To operate in everyone’s best interest, human resources professionals and managers must ensure we have the documentation required to tell our story and protect the company.

Here are 5 pro tips that you and your management team can use starting today to improve your documentation process:

  1. Be Consistent: If you document an issue regarding one employee, be sure to do it for others when the same or a similar incident occurs.

    For example: If you document that Jane is late 12 minutes, document when Mike is late 12 minutes as well. Late is late. Employers tend to run into trouble when they make exceptions for one employee that they are not making for others.
  2. Document Immediately: Business priorities can change by the moment and our memories can fade surprisingly quickly. All documentation should be completed within 72 hours of an incident–preferably within 24 hours.

    Whenever possible, date stamp documentation or record in an electronic system that allows you to determine when the note was created. You can also consider emailing yourself documentation as a back-up.
  3. Get Input and Back-Up: Ask for written statements by other managers and employees when applicable. For more complex issues, or issues in which one employee alleges wrongdoing by another, ask the employee to document their issue, concern, observation, etc. immediately.
  4. Keep it Simple: Use a simple incident log for most items (like attendance, missing deadlines, not making it to required meetings or trainings, etc.). When the issue is a bit more complex, remain objective. Stick to the facts. Document who was involved, what happened, when and where. Do include a brief history of the issue, when applicable. Also, consider including your own take on “why” the incident occurred.
  5. Keep a Secure Filing System: Employee relations documentation is very sensitive and is confidential to the extent that you are sharing with your superiors, HR consultant, or legal counsel. Keep it under lock and key, or password-protected at all times.

Effective documentation is crucial to any good employee relations efforts, particularly when everyone is under added pressure. When you provide fair and consistent treatment to all employees, not only will it help your business stay out of trouble, your employees will be more committed to their jobs, more loyal to the company, and less likely to have performance issues overall.

Dealing with an employee who is not meeting performance goals or behavior expectations can be challenging for any leader at any time, but especially during difficult times. Having the right policy in place can help.

Do you want support in developing or implementing a progressive disciplinary policy in your small business? Contact us for a free consultation today.