Some employee behavior and performance violations necessitate immediate termination. However, a growing number of companies are shirking automatic firing in favor of more constructive responses whenever promising and fitting. In many of these cases, existing disciplinary practices are being replaced by progressive discipline.

What is progressive discipline?

Though specifics vary from one company policy to the next, progressive discipline is characterized by graduated penalties in the wake of repeat transgressions. A four-step example of progressive discipline might look like this:

1st offense: Verbal warning
2nd offense: Written warning
3rd offense: Suspension
4th offense: Termination

Reasons for adopting progressive discipline vary, but we see a few reoccurring themes:

For some companies, progressive discipline is part and parcel of efforts to retain talent amidst today’s labor shortage.

Progressive discipline can also be a response to the cultural shift toward inclusion that encourages employee education, communication, even second chances.

At myHR Partner, we emphatically support the choice to approach employee discipline in a nuanced and growth-minded manner, and the belief that employees and businesses alike can benefit from thoughtful responses to infractions. However, we commonly see missteps that threaten to undo even the best disciplinary intentions.

Any company – and especially those eager to evolve their disciplinary practices – is wise to adopt the following rules of thumb when it comes to addressing workplace matters:

1. Address violations immediately and clearly

In myHR Partner’s vast observational experience, small businesses in particular have a tendency to let transgressions slide until they not only repeat, but become impossible to ignore.

This is problematic on several fronts. For one, a delayed response sends a message of leniency that’s at best confusing to employees, and at worst enables problematic behavior. Delayed reactions reduce the chance that discipline will work, because by the time it is implemented, patterns of misbehavior have been ingrained and sometimes even normalized. Last but not least, delayed responses erode employees’ trust in leadership’s willingness or ability to see and address what’s happening under its roof.

In short, have hard employee conversations now – and don’t sugarcoat them. It’s demeaning and unfair. Employees have a right to know if they’re not performing properly, and what, if anything, they can do to course correct.

2. Approach issues with curiosity

Our experience has revealed something interesting: Most employees do not purposefully do things wrong. However, their unintentional missteps are often misconstrued as malignant.

This tension between what’s real and what’s assumed is one of the reasons we encourage HR and leadership to approach performance- and behavior- related issues with curiosity, rather than with assumptions and punitive motivations front and center. Authentic curiosity helps you open your mind and understand what is in employees’, too. We’ve seen countless scenarios where leadership was certain an employee had been intentionally deceitful, only to learn that a misunderstanding, learned behavior, or lack of training or communication was the true culprit.

3. Approach concerns calmly

Resist the urge to accuse, or to convey disappointment or anger. Instead, discuss and listen. Building on the point above: Sometimes the reasons behind employee infractions defy expectations. Lead with emotion, and you might never learn what actually happened. A calm approach to an employee matter could mark the difference between the expense and hassle of termination/recruitment/hiring and the unique joy of seeing an employee learn and grow from mistakes.

4. Set clear expectations from day one

Both in terms of behavior and performance, never expect employees to know what you want from them. It’s your job to make expectations and instructions abundantly clear. Job descriptions with key performance indicators outlined for each job requirement make it easier for managers to have difficult conversations as needed. To this end, we recommend regularly scheduled and structured one-on-one meetings in place of annual performance reviews. They are much more effective in extracting desired results.

5. Adjust where you can to support a struggling employee

Working with an offending employee is obviously a complex matter. Still, we encourage companies to remember that team members are complete individuals who sometimes require variations in corporate practices. Whether or not it makes sense for your company to deviate from disciplinary standards is your call, and is case-by-case, of course. Still, we encourage it as, at very least, an option.

Have questions about the complexities of workplace discipline, about shifting to progressive discipline, or about other workplace HR matters? Join the hundreds of businesses and organizations that lean on myHR Partner. Reach us at