Employee Management

How to manage employee discipline

Guidelines for establishing an effective company discipline policy.

Published: January 27, 2014
Updated: February 22, 2017

By HR360

Discipline is one aspect of managing employees that is often overlooked by business owners and supervisors – until a problem arises. Establishing an effective discipline program is important to ensure fairness and consistency, improve employee performance, and generate supportive documentation in the event that a termination or other adverse employment decision becomes necessary.

Each company's employee discipline policy should be tailored to its individual workplace and needs. It is a good idea to review your policy with an employment law attorney to ensure compliance with federal and state laws. The following guidelines can help you get started.

Establish a workplace code of conduct

Employees must have fair and reasonable notice of what is expected of them. Be sure your rules comply with applicable law and clearly outline permissible and prohibited conduct in the workplace related to: 

  • Routine matters such as attendance, dress code, and break time;

  • Use of company resources (for example, whether employees may use company phones or computers for personal calls or email); and

  • More serious misconduct such as drug or alcohol abuse, harassment, violence in the workplace, or failure to comply with workplace safety rules.

Clearly communicate the rules to employees by including them in your employee handbook or other written materials to be distributed when a new employee begins work. Consider having each employee sign an acknowledgment that he or she has read and understands the rules.

Use progressive discipline

Progressive discipline is a method of discipline that uses graduated steps to deal with employee misconduct and performance problems. While your discipline process should be customized to reflect the nature of your business and the types of disciplinary issues that are likely to arise, the following steps are commonly included:

  • Counseling. Usually suitable for a first offense and a minor infraction, counseling is a form of "positive" discipline which provides an opportunity for early corrective action before a problem becomes too serious. During the counseling session, the employer or supervisor should explain the specific performance issue and reinforce expectations regarding the employee's conduct. 

  • Verbal Warning. A verbal warning is appropriate for a more serious offense or as a step following counseling. At this stage, the employer or supervisor should clearly advise the employee regarding what is needed to remedy the employee's infraction and inform the employee that more severe disciplinary consequences will follow repetition of the infraction.

  • Written Warning. The next step in a typical progressive discipline system is the written warning. A written warning usually follows an unsuccessful verbal warning, or is used when new problems arise. This document should clearly state the infraction and the consequences for a repeat offense. The written warning should be addressed to the employee and a copy placed in the employee's personnel file. Some employers include a second written warning as a step in the process.

  • Further Action. Depending on the nature or repetition of the offense, further disciplinary action may be appropriate, such as a transfer, demotion, or suspension without pay. Termination may be warranted for serious offenses or following repeated warnings without improvement. Due to the potential legal implications, a decision to terminate an employee should be carefully considered in consultation with employment law counsel.

Be careful that your discipline policy is not too narrow. Some infractions (such as workplace violence) are so serious that an employer must take immediate action for the well-being of the workplace and/or other employees or customers.

Keep accurate documentation and discipline fairly

It is necessary to thoroughly and accurately document every step of the discipline process. Documentation promotes consistency and objectivity and provides evidence of what occurred. Among the important documents an employer should keep are:

  • Initial complaints and witness reports;

  • Notes of supervisors or other management personnel; and

  • Any records contained in the employee's personnel file, including any previous discipline reports or investigations, notes relating to any verbal warnings, and written warnings.

Consistent and fair discipline may help an employer avoid claims of discrimination or other unlawful conduct. In addition, employees are more likely to accept the consequences of their actions if they believe they are being treated fairly.

Before moving to disciplinary action, sit down with the employee and allow him or her the opportunity to respond to the problem. If discipline is appropriate, make sure the "punishment fits the crime" and that it is applied equally to employees who commit the same infraction. Finally, providing employees with some right to appeal a disciplinary decision to a person above the rank of the one issuing the discipline, and who was not involved in the initial decision, can help to ensure consistent and fair discipline.


HR360 is the award-winning online HR library featuring easy-to-understand guidance on federal and state labor laws and Health Care Reform along with interactive HR tools and hundreds of forms and posters. HR360 also features step-by-step guidance in key HR areas such as hiring, performance reviews, disciplining, and termination. Reviewed and maintained by a team of attorneys, HR360 helps employers nationwide successfully manage their employees while complying with changing employment laws.

The information and materials herein are provided for general information purposes only and are not intended to constitute legal or other advice or opinions on any specific matters and are not intended to replace the advice of a qualified attorney, plan provider or other professional advisor. This information has been taken from sources which we believe to be reliable, but there is no guarantee as to its accuracy. In accordance with IRS Circular 230, this communication is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used as or considered a 'covered opinion' or other written tax advice and should not be relied upon for any purpose other than its intended purpose.

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