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  • Writer's pictureDavid Manes

Why your small business can benefit from progressive discipline

Motivating employees who are having trouble at work can be a difficult thing to do. Firing them can be even harder. Nobody wants to utter the phrase “you’re fired.” That is why every small business can benefit from instituting progressive discipline.

Progressive discipline is a system that provides a graduated range of responses to employee’s performance issues or conduct problems. The system is a fair, effective and legal way to deal with employees problems and can help make some of the most difficult scenarios easier to deal with.

How does progressive discipline work?

Progressive discipline provides an escalating array of responses to employee problems. When an issue arise a typical progressive discipline response may look something like this:

  1. Counseling or verbal warning

  2. Written warning

  3. Suspension

  4. Termination

The advantages of progressive discipline

When the above process is done correctly the employer will often not have to reach the final stage that involves firing the employee. The reason is because progressive discipline improves communication between the employer and employee and allows them to work towards improvement. Let’s look in depth at the stages of progressive discipline.

Counseling stage

At the first stage the goal is not to punish or discipline, it is to solve the problem. The counseling allows the employer to communicate what is wrong to the employee and allows the employee to communicate her feelings about the issues. After this communication each side can collaborate to solve the problem. The employer can offer coaching and tips for improvement and the employee can work to fulfill those goals now that she knows that something is wrong.

Written warning

This is often reserved for more serious problems. It sends a clear message to the employee that he needs to improve and that something needs it be done. Because of its seriousness the written warning provides extra incentive for the employee to improve. It also lays the groundwork for the employer to execute a fair and legally defensible termination.

Suspension or demotion

This is basically just a step up from the written warning, adding a new level of seriousness and urgency and providing even more incentive for the employee to improve. A small business can choose to give several written warnings before taking this step or can even skip this step depending on the circumstances.


You have gone through several steps and nothing has been able to improve the employee’s performance or behavior. This is a last step and it isn’t really a disciplinary action, it is a failure of the discipline system.


Progressive discipline is a system where an employer can collaborate with an employee to try to fix problems that may arise. It provides incentives and feedback in an effort to improve the employee’s performance at work and prevent termination. However, if it does come down to termination, progressive systems allow employers to say that they tried everything they could to fix the problem first. This will allow the employer to have a legally defensible position in case of a lawsuit.  For more information of progressive discipline contact a local attorney or an expert in the employment field.[1]


[1] Amy DelPo & Lisa Guerin, Dealing with Problem Employees: A Legal Guide 106-116 (Janet Portman ed., Nolo 4th ed. 2007).

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