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How to Properly Document Employee Discipline for Better Results and Legal Protection

People often think of discipline as something negative and confrontational. But discipline in the workplace can be a constructive, positive force. Done right, disciplinary action helps managers and employees work together to meet objectives and overcome challenges. Just as important, it provides a crucial level of legal protection.

The keys to success with any disciplinary process are proper and consistent response and documentation, as follows:

Understanding the Elements of Employee Discipline

Employee discipline can take many forms, ranging from mild intervention, such as coaching and discussion, to more serious action, such as verbal or written warnings. Before any of this is possible, however, you must:

  • Create well-defined rules. Outline company policies and rules in an up-to-date employee handbook that is distributed and signed off by every employee.
  • Practice fair enforcement. It is the responsibility of managers and supervisors to address concerns immediately and consistently. Otherwise, you could be guilty of unfair or subjective treatment, which could work against you if a terminated employee files a complaint.
  • Establish a systematic disciplinary process. Thorough and consistent documentation is crucial with progressive discipline. Documentation shows you addressed the issue with the employee multiple times and gave the employee ample opportunity to improve.

A Step-by-Step Approach to Progressive Discipline.

For progressive discipline to be effective, you must take the following actions in order — each imposing a higher level of consequence. Remember, too, that similar behaviors must be treated equally. If you give one employee a verbal warning for being late, you must do the same for all employees. Additionally, it’s important to note that serious offenses (such as stealing or threatening violence) justify immediate termination.

  • Give verbal warnings. Keep a record of every incident or issue you discuss with an employee. With documentation of an employee’s pattern of poor performance or conduct, you can establish that more severe action (up to termination) was warranted.
  • Provide written warnings. After speaking to your employee about an issue, you may need to advance to written warnings. Recap past verbal warnings and emphasize why the conduct remains a problem. You’ll also want to include a date by which you expect to see improvement.

Documenting employee discipline shows which company policies were violated, and that the employee was made aware of it. This can go a long way toward preventing an EEOC investigation or employee lawsuit.

  • Conduct a formal discipline meeting. If matters are not improving, it may be time for more serious action. In a formal discipline meeting, it’s recommended to have another manager present. Always ask the employee to sign the most recent disciplinary documentation. If he or she refuses to sign, ask the witnessing supervisor to sign indicating the employee’s refusal. At this point in the disciplinary process, you may:
    • Offer probation. Extending probation gives your employee one last chance to make a change before termination. It might include a reduction in pay, reduction in duties, retraining or closer supervision.
    • Terminate. You’re entitled to pursue termination if fair and legal disciplinary efforts are unsuccessful. Review prior documentation and actions with the employee – and explain why termination is now the only option.

Effectively Handle Employee Discipline with Strategic Tools

Properly addressing disciplinary issues can put employees on alert, while also protecting your business along the way. Beyond paper-based warning reports, the Progressive Discipline Smart App is a web-based app that guides you through a consistent and organized documentation process. The Performance Management Fill-and-Save™ HR Form Library is another great resource, providing unlimited access to 100% compliant forms that you complete, route and save electronically. Learn more about which paper and digital solutions are right for your business business here.

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