Understanding progressive discipline

Brought to you by HRNow! The Right Advice at the Right Time to help you make the Right Decision

Employers must navigate a variety of challenges to maintain a productive and harmonious workplace. At times, it may become necessary to discipline an employee. One crucial tool at your disposal is progressive discipline, an approach that offers a structured framework for addressing employee performance or behavior issues in a fair and consistent manner. 

Progressive discipline is built on the principle of providing employees with an opportunity to improve their performance or behaviour, before considering termination. This process typically involves a series of steps, each with a more severe consequence than the previous, if the employee does not show improvement.

When dealing with a problematic employee, it’s essential to focus on specific behaviours, not personal factors. The objective is to find a way to stop the unacceptable behaviours that make working with the employee unnecessarily difficult. People aren’t always aware of how their behaviour impacts their work and environment. 

Start by bringing it to the employee’s attention in a non-confrontational way; have open and genuine discussions with your employee. Focus on how you can help the employee improve, rather than listing all the ways they are falling short. You can highlight how the situation is creating challenges for the business, and how working together to find a solution can be a beneficial to all. 

How to conduct a progressive discipline process

Stay Calm:
Giving negative feedback or firing someone is never easy. Tensions flare, and people often get upset. As an employer, it’s essential to stay calm and avoid judgments or criticisms. 

  • Maintain your body language and voice in a neutral tone.
  • Focus on facts and maintain an honest, professional, and respectful attitude.
  • Sometimes people are difficult because they feel undervalued. You should get to the bottom of the cause of their behaviour before taking drastic action.

Identify the causes of the problem: the verbal warning
The reasons behind a behaviour are unique to each person. This is why it’s necessary to identify the causes before addressing the problem with your employee. It could be related to:

  • Their work
  • Relationships with other colleagues
  • Personal issues that prevent them from performing their job adequately

As an employer, you want to get to the root cause of the problem and resolve it. Have a conversation with the employee, explaining you’ve noticed a change in their behaviour and asking if there is anything you can do to help.

Note: the employee is not obligated to tell you about their private life.

Depending on their answer, you may decide progressive discipline is not the best option. If they tell you everything is fine, then you can continue to manage their performance through the progressive discipline process. 

Be open to feedback:
Problematic behaviour may be the result of the employee’s perception of and experience in their work environment. You must be open to receiving feedback about management styles or any other problem your employee may have with the organization. 

  • Create a safe space in which your employee can express their opinions.
  • Use active listening to make sure you understand what they’re saying.
  • Listen to your employee’s side of the story without prejudice. 

Sometimes a difficult person just needs someone to listen and understand them. This often helps change their attitude and behaviour.

Write down expectations and specific consequences; the written warning:

  • Document any expectations and behavioural changes together with your employee.
  • Develop a plan establishing objectives, a timeframe, and regular progress evaluations. This way, you will both be on the same page.
  • It’s also important to document any consequences of failing to make the necessary behaviour changes.
  • In most cases, the person will take the matter more seriously if they have a clear plan and are aware of the consequences of not meeting the required expectations.

Monitor progress:
Once you have established your employee’s action plan, the next step is to monitor their progress. This will help them achieve their goals within the established timeframe.

Ways to monitor progress include:

  • Getting feedback from the employee’s manager/supervisor
  • Evaluating the quality of their work
  • Having regular one-to-one meetings

Make written observations and reports for maximum transparency. A copy of anything written should be placed in the employee's file. At the end of the agreed period, use these documents to evaluate their success.

If the problem persists even after a written warning, the next step may involve a suspension. Suspending an employee is not without risk – it could be a breach of contract, and the employee could make a claim of unfair or constructive dismissal. If you are considering suspending an employee, please speak to a CFIB Business Advisor or a legal professional first. 

Final Warning:
In cases where previous steps have not yielded the desired results, a final warning may be issued. This serves as a last opportunity for the employee to rectify their behavior before more serious consequences are considered. Like the written warning, the final warning should be documented and placed in the employee's file.

Last Resort…Termination:
If the employee's performance or behavior does not improve after a final warning, termination may be the final step. Employers should ensure that all relevant policies and procedures are followed, and that the decision is made in compliance with their provincial and/or federal regulations. 

Note: going through a progressive discipline process does not automatically mean you can fire an employee for cause. It is important to seek legal advice before firing an employee for cause. 

Termination is not a decision to take lightly. Please call a CFIB Business Advisor before proceeding with a termination. 

By following these considerations and adhering to best practices, employers can create a positive and productive work environment while safeguarding their legal interests. 

Should you have any questions, or wish to speak about this further, do not hesitate to reach out to one of our Business Advisors at 1-833-568-2342!