Professional woman holding her head in disappointment after being disciplined at work

A Small Business Guide to Disciplinary Action

When an employee exhibits unacceptable behavior or does not do something they should, you will need to discipline them to correct the issue. Disciplining staff members is not just about punishing them; it’s about creating a safe, pleasant, and fair workplace, so your team and business can succeed. Keep reading to learn more about disciplining your employees constructively.

Choose a disciplinary method

There are several disciplinary models to use in your small business. Some methods focus on punitive actions and others focus on rehabilitative objectives. Choose a model that works best for your company and that you feel comfortable using.

1. Progressive discipline

In a progressive model, the consequences increase in severity each time the worker fails to correct the issue or behavior. This method can protect your small business from legal action because the worker has multiple opportunities to fix the problem. It’s often a punitive approach, but you can add rehabilitative elements by offering training or mentoring if an employee isn’t meeting expectations.

Common consequences include:

  • verbal warnings
  • written warnings
  • probation
  • termination

2. Performance improvement plans

A performance improvement plan (PIP) outlines the steps an employee needs to take to perform at the expected level. It focuses on helping your team member become a valuable asset to your staff and shows them that you believe that they are capable of excelling at their job. In the plan, include:

  • the behavior that needs to be improved or corrected
  • any support and resources you’ll provide
  • how you will measure success
  • how often you’ll provide feedback
  • consequences of not meeting expectations

Learn more about utilizing performance improvement plans.

3. Reassignment or suspension

If an employee needs to be removed from a situation immediately, but the offending behavior does not warrant termination, consider reassigning or suspending the team member.

If you reassign someone, place them in a new position and offer training to help them succeed.

A suspended worker is typically not allowed to come to work until certain conditions are met. For example, you may suspend them for a specific length of time or until they complete specific training, such as anger management classes.

Address problems before they get out of hand

If you ignore a problem after it has been brought to your attention, you’re essentially saying the behavior is acceptable.

Address the problem quickly by asking the employee to have a private conversation. Tell them clearly and factually what the problem is and share specific examples. After you’ve answered any questions, work with your staff member to create a plan to fix the problem. Then, monitor them to ensure everything is resolved.

Set clear guidelines

To guarantee that you’re being fair and consistent when disciplining your team, set clear expectations and guidelines for behavior in your employee handbook and onboarding materials.  It’s important that everyone knows what you expect from them and what will happen if they break the rules. Include things like:

  • dress code
  • anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies
  • job responsibilities and performance benchmarks
  • time and attendance guidelines

Write your policies in clear, easy-to-understand language and ask your employees to sign a statement saying that they read and understood them. This will decrease the chances that you will need to discipline your team because they’ll know what’s permitted and required.

Document everything

Anytime you have a conversation with an employee about their behavior, write down everything that was discussed, including next steps. Ask the staff member to sign the document to verify that they were part of the conversation, understand what is expected of them moving forward, and are aware of potential consequences if the behavior doesn’t change.

By documenting everything, you’ll be able to make a case for termination if it comes to that. If you fire someone without documentation, then you leave yourself open to legal consequences.

If an employee changes their behavior, the documentation can help you track their growth and progress.