Hot Topics # 6


What's "Progressive" About Progressive Discipline?



The concept of "Progressive Discipline" has been around in the employment arena for a long time. I have received many questions about it over the years. The questions are usually: what is it, how does it work, when to use it, and how to use it? And employees who are the subject of such discipline often do not find anything "progressive" about it. Of course, that is from their perspective. Questions and issues regarding progressive discipline are often popular subjects on promotional assessment examinations for management positions such as Fire Captain and Chief Officer. Like Skelly, the concept is also often misunderstood, misstated, and misapplied.


Also, progressive discipline is often times confused with Skelly due process rights. There is a common misconception that progressive discipline is the same thing as Skelly rights. As will be seen, this is not the case. However, the two concepts often are related and often employed at the same time to the same fact situation. And, as with any discipline, Skelly due process rights may attach at any of the various disciplinary stages, depending on the severity of the behavior and the resulting degree of discipline.


For at least the past 50 years employers have been using a standard procedure to handle organizational discipline issues. This traditional progressive discipline system was developed in the 1930's after unions demanded that employers eliminate summary terminations without prior notice. What developed was a progressive system of increasing penalties that provide an employee with notice of unacceptable behavior, while providing protection against unfair and premature job loss. This traditional approach, often called progressive or corrective discipline, seeks to correct employee conduct by using progressively more severe penalties until behavior is modified or the employee is finally terminated (hopefully the former and not the latter).


The process consists of a serious of steps, one or more of which may be added, modified, or eliminated by the supervisor as the situation dictates and the policy allows. The severity of the behavior usually dictates where in the step process the progressive discipline will start. Some behaviors are small, rather insignificant violations of policy which, in and of themselves, do not amount to much. Other behaviors can be quite serious and require immediate and severe action. For that reason the process is often said to be "situation or incident driven."


The process usually starts where an employee has engaged in some inappropriate behavior and is verbally counseled by a supervisor. The employee is told that if the same infraction occurs again within some specified period the degree of disciplinary action will be increased. In most instances the employee complies and this is the end if the issue. The supervisor makes a note which documents the counseling session and retains it as a reminder for possible inclusion into the next performance evaluation.


If the employee again commits the same or a similar violation within the specified period, the employee will may given a written warning, or "written reprimand," which will be placed in his/her personnel file. The employee is also informed that, if his/ her conduct is repeated within a specific period, the employee will be disciplined more severely. At this time the employee is usually counseled more strongly regarding the behavior and reminded that it has happened before and will not be tolerated by the organization in the future.


If the employee again behaves in the same or similar manner and within the specified time period, he or she may be suspended from employment for a specified period of time without pay and will be given an even stronger warning. This warning should clearly state the possibility of discharge as the only alternative to continued behavior.


If the employee again violates the same rule within the specified time, the employee is discharged. The documentation produced at each stage of the progressive proceeding is produced as the employer's evidence of due diligence to try and change the employee's behavior. In addition, such documentation serves as a clear indication that the employee had been repeatedly warned of the severity of the situation and afforded the opportunity to correct behavior.


Over the years employers have modified the progressive discipline process to suit organizational needs. Such modifications tend to be more prevalent where the employees are represented by a collective bargaining agreement whereby a grievance procedure serves as a mechanism to settle disciplinary issues. For example, many organizations have added a "probationary period" step. The employee is told that as a result of his behavior he was being placed on probation for a specified period of time, commonly 90 days. He is advised that his performance will be monitored closely during this period and that if he fails to improve, further discipline could result. This probationary period is often placed as a disciplinary step after the written reprimand and prior to an unpaid suspension. In fact, it is not uncommon to have several consecutive "probationary periods" prior to going to the next level. This is not encouraged and more will be said later.


Some employers have used a "virtual suspension" procedure whereby the employee is told that he is being placed on suspension and this is documented in the personnel file. The employee is allowed to work during the suspension period and is paid for the time in order not to deprive the individual of pay or the organization of needed services. The effect of repeated probation and/or virtual suspension actually has on modifying behavior is debatable. Over time, the discipline looses its deterrent effect. Employees get used to it, they suffer no real impact, and it is rendered ineffective. It becomes a hollow threat.


Other employers have elected to take the next step and demote an employee to a lower rated and less demanding job. Such a demotion may be temporary or permanent depending on the desired severity of the discipline and the intended result. A demotion would logically fall between a suspension without pay and a termination.


Some organizations will modify the progressive discipline procedure to the point that they really have no consistent formal discipline system at all. Here, supervisors are allowed the freedom to choose to abolish the formal series of steps and instead deal with problems entirely on an ad hoc basis. When problems arise in these organizations, supervisors engage in whatever "coaching and counseling" they feel appropriate. This has shown to be effective in some organizations but there is a downside.


When the supervisor has finally given up hope of turning the employee around, termination is attempted. The Human Resources Department is sometimes consulted, after the fact, to provide additional assistance to the supervisor to bring about the discipline. Sometimes, due to the informality of the proceeding to this point, it may be difficult to terminate the employee. The employee may contest the termination and base it on the inadequacy of progressive discipline and corresponding documentation. Everything proceeding this has been informal and difficult to substantiate.


Supervisors are sometimes initially reluctant to begin the disciplinary process. Assuming that the behavior being addressed is not so serious that severe disciplinary action or termination is warranted from a first offense, it is incumbent on the supervisor to begin the steps of the formal discipline process. The formal discipline process is often viewed by the supervisor as "building a case" against an employee. And employees also view the process as "building a case" against the employee with the decision to terminate already made at the outset and the various steps as just going through the motions. Hence, the system is viewed by both employer and employee as a means to justify termination rather than rehabilitation and behavior modification. Once a supervisor adopts the position that he is just building a case, he may be blind to any improvements the employee makes and the whole process becomes subverted.


The disciplinary process is by design quite subjective. This gives supervisors latitude to administer the process in the best interests of the organization while being fair to the employee. With this wide latitude also comes the temptation to sometimes put off any discipline as an unpleasant task. Because supervisors often feel uncomfortable taking even clearly appropriate disciplinary action, they often hesitate until there is no alternative. This then has the effect of appearing like the supervisor is overlooking or condoning the behavior. Then, having put up with the employee's misbehavior for so long, they often overreact and confront the employee far more harshly than the immediate violation might otherwise require. The employee then defends on the theory that he was not on notice of any problems and no previous problems have been documented. This is the "everyone around here knows he's a problem employee" but nowhere is there documentation to confirm it.


Progressive discipline is a tried and true procedure when employee behavior must be changed. The procedure should be incorporated into a clearly written policy and the policy should be followed. Supervisors can and should have a certain amount of discretion in administering such a policy but the administration should be consistent and fair for all employees. Employees will react positively to a system which they perceive to be fair.


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