Progressive discipline. You may not know the term but you know the system: three strikes and you’re out. The progressive discipline model, in which employees receive a series of documented warnings before penalties can be enacted against them, sets out clear guidelines for employees and supervisors for discipline, performance improvement and a paper trail for both.
What Progressive Discipline Is Supposed to Do
While some HR pros and business leaders think it sets up a patronizing relationship – and it can, when the company culture is toxic – what it’s really meant to do is keep everyone honest and above board, and to provide real opportunities for communication and training. If a progressive discipline model is working properly, supervisors can’t enact outlandish punishments and have a harder time letting their biases make decisions for them. By the same token, employees can prove one way or the other, if they’ve been properly warned about performance issues and given an opportunity and plan to improve.
Not every workplace really benefits from such a formalized system, but plenty do, especially ones with big worker to supervisor ratios where continuous feedback isn’t feasible. If you can’t catch up with everyone in your team every day, having a formal system of negative (and positive) feedback helps you to keep track of the feedback they are giving, and to make effective plans for team and individual development. You’ve got 150 people reporting to you – do you really think you can keep track of all those relationships and every performance problems mentally? That’s where progressive discipline and all the associated paperwork comes in.
What Happens When it Goes Wrong
When a progressive discipline program is functioning poorly, usually due to an organization neglecting best practices or because of a toxic company culture, it becomes nothing more than a tool to keep employees in line and even to cull less favoured workers. It becomes a weapon.
Best practices for progressive discipline are easy to institute, but just as easy to stray from, because they all boil down to two things: compliance and communication. One of the most important reasons to implement a progressive discipline system is that it creates a paper trail for both employers and employees. That paper trail can be used to settle disputes and chart behaviour changes for good or ill, in both employee and supervisor. Glaring patterns in who gets disciplined, sharp improvements or declines in performance can be easily gleaned from these records. But it’s easy to fall behind on paperwork, or on following up with improvement plans. And it’s easy to screw up a good system – when the culture enables you.
When I first started working part time in high school, I had a personality conflict with one of my supervisors. Not long after our first fight – public, unfortunately; I could have handled that better – I started to notice that every possible infraction, from being a minute late, to my shirt coming a little untucked while I was washing dishes, was suddenly worth a verbal warning. Employees with much bigger problems, from neglecting health and safety to chronic lateness, got a pass while I got none. Like a lot of 16-year-olds I didn’t really understand how to approach my boss’s boss about his bias, what to document, or even how to tell if I was imagining the problem.
That doesn’t change as soon as you hit 21. If you aren’t a star employee with a lot of leverage, negotiating with your boss is intimidating enough, much less pushing back on bad behaviour or filing a formal complaint. That’s why it’s so important that progressive discipline not be weaponized – it’s taking advantage of the unequal power between employer and employee, and by definition doing harm.
It’s a Communication System
Progressive discipline is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, it’s a system wherein employees might be disciplined for mistakes, but it’s about more than that: properly functioning, it’s the backbone of a larger system of communication and accountability. It’s just one part of your pledge, as an employer or supervisor, to deal fairly with your employees and to expect the same from them in return.
But how can a system of discipline really be about improving communication? Here’s how: every verbal warning or write up – and you can use softer terms, like feedback, if you prefer – needs to be justified with reference to documentable employee behaviour and workplace rules, and every one of those conversations must conclude with a performance improvement plan that makes sense for the employee’s individual situation. If an employee is having trouble with deadlines, your conversation about the problem also has to present a possible solution – preferably one that takes into account the employee’s own ideas. Maybe they’re not prioritizing the right things. Maybe they’ve been overloaded for work. Or, maybe they don’t have the right training for the job.
Progressive discipline is about discovering and solving problems in the workplace – not creating a smooth path to fire whomever you like. In order to ensure that your leaders are getting the most they can from it, these conversations should be used as jumping off points for other forms of feedback, coaching and even training. Don’t sacrifice engagement for tidy paperwork and simpler communication, and don’t let yourself become inflexible within the disciplinary system you’ve established.
A progressive discipline system is meant to guide you to fairness, impartiality, transparency and good records keeping. Disciplinary conversations aren’t a substitute for meaningful conversations with your team – they’re just significant waypoints in a much more complicated journey.