HomeBusinessEmployee Disciplinary Action: A Guide for HR Teams

Employee Disciplinary Action: A Guide for HR Teams


Employee disciplinary action is likely at the very bottom of the list of things most small business owners would like to talk about. Unfortunately, it’s a necessary part of running a business and managing employees. 

In an ideal world, all employees would follow the rules as laid out to them in the company’s employee handbook. But employees are people. They’re imperfect, and things happen in their lives that might impact how they perform at work. In these instances, have clear policies in place around how to handle various infractions. Know what level of employee disciplinary action is required, and what the process is. 

This guide walks you through the nuances of employee disciplinary action, and offers guidance on how to make these policies fair for the business and employees.

What is disciplinary action?

Disciplinary action in the workplace is a specific response to an employee’s misconduct, rule, violation, or poor performance. It can be a reprimand or a specific corrective action directed toward an employee in response to one or more infractions. 

Companies often have specific policies about what constitutes an infraction, and what the associated disciplinary action is. Actions vary depending on the severity of the case, and the company’s policies around discipline. These policies are designed to reprimand employees for unwanted behavior, and to discourage future occurrences. 

Disciplinary action policies give companies a clear means of recourse for when employees violate company-wide rules or their employment contract. It allows them to take steps to correct that action, deter other employees from engaging in those actions, and document those issues in case similar instances occur in the future. 

Implementing, maintaining, and enforcing guidelines around disciplinary action ensures that all employees know what is expected of them, and understand the repercussions if they fail to live up to those expectations. It also helps to create a fair and consistent workplace where all employees—regardless of rank, tenure, or seniority—are held to the same standard of conduct. 

What are common kinds of employee disciplinary action? 

Specific employee disciplinary actions vary depending on the company’s policies and the issues being addressed. 

Here are some examples: 

  • Verbal and/or written warning
  • Additional training or retraining
  • Official meetings with supervisors, HR, and the management team
  • Reduction in work hours, job perks, or benefits
  • Placement on a performance improvement plan 
  • Temporary suspension of duties
  • Demotion 
  • Termination 

Employee disciplinary actions come with a sliding scale of severity depending on the seriousness and impact of the infraction on the company or other employees. Companies need to ensure that the disciplinary action they implement for each case is commensurate and fair with the severity of the violation.

A minor issue like showing up late to a shift or making an honest mistake that leads to an unhappy customer likely only need a verbal warning or coaching session. But a serious issue like workplace harassment or bullying require a more serious reprimand, like suspension—or even termination.

To find this balance, many companies use a disciplinary action matrix that’s built into their employee handbook. This clearly outlines and defines specific types of infractions, and what the associated disciplinary action should be. Managers and HR can use this policy as a roadmap to help determine the right course of action if an employee breaks the rules. 

In some cases, you’ll need a program of disciplinary action. Progressive discipline is one such technique. In these cases, managers or HR assign a specific disciplinary action for an infraction, with a set of milestones or desired outcomes the employee must meet over a set period of time. If the employee doesn’t meet those goals, discipline becomes more severe. These programs give employees a chance to improve themselves before they’re faced with more serious reprimands. 

When is disciplinary action needed in the workplace?

As mentioned above, there are many potential behaviors that may warrant disciplinary action in the workplaces. This ranges from minor infractions all the way up to egregious or criminal behavior that may warrant termination for cause or even legal action (yikes). 

Examples of behavior that typically leads to disciplinary action include: 

  • Failure to perform job functions
  • General misconduct, like unprofessional behavior in the workplace 
  • Workplace harassment, bullying, and other actions toward fellow employees that are either a violation of company policies, regional or federal employment protection laws (or both) 
  • Threats of violence or violent actions against co-workers, superiors, or customers
  • Illegal behavior such as fraud or theft
  • Inappropriate behavior with co-workers or customers, such as fraternization 
  • Misuse of or damage to company property 
  • Violations of the company’s IT or social media policies 

This list is by no means comprehensive. There are—unfortunately—dozens of specific actions where you’ll need to take disciplinary action. 

Creating a comprehensive and fair employee disciplinary action policy will require companies to list as many of these categories as possible—along with specific examples. Along with your list, include specific disciplinary actions. Be clear about what happens and when.

What are an employee’s rights regarding disciplinary action

While employers can create detailed employee handbooks with specific reasons why an employee may receive disciplinary action, they can’t reprimand employees whenever they want, and for whatever they want. There’s a line when employee discipline becomes unacceptable, and potentially unlawful. 

This line primarily starts with the language in a range of employee protection laws in the United States, including: 

These laws are designed to protect employees from discrimination based on their age, gender, religion, disabilities, and a host of other protected person attributes. “Discrimination” under these laws extends to disciplinary action that’s motivated by a bias against one or more of these protected personal attributes. 

In other words, you can’t discipline an employee if they acted a certain way because they experienced discrimination. That includes finding an excuse to discipline an employee who has a specific personal attribute, or failing to do so for employees who share a different personal attribute. 

Employee discipline as retaliation is also protected by law in the United States. For example, employees who call out discrimination, harassment, or any other illegal wrongdoing can’t be disciplined as a retaliation for making the company look bad. Employees have the right and duty to report illegal activities at their company. They can’t legally be disciplined for it. 

Companies should also be aware that even if disciplinary actions are assigned, employees have the right to consult an employment lawyer. If they feel the action was unwarranted, unfair, or against the laws outlined above, they can (and should) consult a lawyer). 

Employee disciplinary action best practices

So far we’ve talked about disciplinary action as being a somewhat black and white issue for companies. If an employee does something against the rules, the company doles out a reprimand that aligns with the severity of the infraction. But this view doesn’t take all angles and nuances into account. 

Employees aren’t the company’s property. After all, they aren’t robots. They have feelings, agency, and personal lives that will inevitably impact their performance at work in some way. They also should be allowed to voice their opinions about the organization. Your employees need to be free to offer opinions and improvement suggestions—without worrying about being reprimanded.

Disciplinary policies need to account for this nuance. Employees aren’t there to be controlled or mandated against. There needs to be guidelines and repercussions, yes, but also be fairness and understanding. 

Here are some best practices to help strike this balance. 

Create an employee disciplinary action policy 

Companies need a clear, written policy in place that dictates employee discipline. This policy identifies and standardizes what actions and behaviors warrant reprimand, and what processes are in place to address them. 

Your policy should state what the rules are and the consequences if the rules are broken. It should also include the recommended process that managers and HR should follow to strike a fair balance for all parties.

Strive to identify the root problem 

Do you have recurring issues with a specific employee—provided it’s not a serious violation like harassment, bullying, or criminal behavior? Managers should first seek to understand what might be causing the problem. 

There could be many reasons why an employee’s performance or punctuality is slipping, for example. Maybe they’re having health issues, experiencing family problems, or at odds with the team or department around them. 

Before assigning a disciplinary action, management should conduct an investigation to uncover the root cause of the problem. This way they can help the employee toward a solution. This, of course, depends on the issue at hand. Managers and HR should always use their discretion when initiating employee disciplinary actions. It’s important to take into account as much context as possible about the company, employee, and incident. 

Support the employee, not just the company

Let’s say an employee’s behavior is rooted in either on-the-job issues or problems in their personal life. In this case, the company may choose to support the employee instead of discipline them. 

This could include changing their work schedule or offering greater flexibility or training. Or, maybe it’s just being more sympathetic to what they are going through. Only use disciplinary actions if it’s warranted. 

Be true to the company’s values and rules

Of course, there are always instances where actions are simply unacceptable, regardless of the context behind them. That’s why it’s so important to have clearly documented disciplinary policies and processes in place. If an employee completely steps outside of the bounds of acceptable behavior, then firm action is likely needed. 

This is where having a sliding scale of employee discipline can help. Managers can use their discretion when addressing minor infractions. For any major infractions, meet them with firm and consistent discipline. 

How to run the employee disciplinary action process

An employee’s caught clocking back into their shift after a break—then continues sit in the back room for another 30 minutes before returning to work. A manager on duty notices this behavior, and wants to uncover if this is the first time this incident has occurred to determine the appropriate disciplinary action. 

Here’s an example of how the employee disciplinary action might work in this instance. 

1. Conduct a thorough investigation

The first step in the disciplinary process is to launch an investigation to uncover more about the incident. Is this a one-time event? Is it a recurring issue? If it’s recurring, how long has it been going on? 

This investigation should include an analysis of all data available to the company, along with discussion with the employee, co-workers, and other managers. The goal is to uncover as much detail as possible about the incident to uncover the scope of the problem. 

In this case, after reviewing past timesheets and talking to the employee’s co-workers and managers, it’s come to light that this worker regularly clocks in from their break without actually going back to work. This is a clear violation of the company’s policy around paid break times and accurate break tracking

2. Consult the employee handbook

Okay: you completed your investigation, and everyone understands the scope of the issue and its impact. Now, HR and managers review the employee handbook to determine the appropriate disciplinary action. 

In our example, the infraction is a clear example of time theft and falsifying time sheets. The recommended disciplinary action, according to the employee handbook, is temporary suspension along with a written warning that may lead to termination if the incident occurs again. 

3. Meet with the employee

At this point, you and HR (if you have one) have decided the disciplinary action. The next step is to meet with the employee to notify them about the company’s decision. This is a formal meeting that clearly outlines the finding of the investigation, along with the corresponding disciplinary action. 

Provide specific and clear details about how long the reprimand will last. Include the impact will be on the employee and any ongoing expectations for that individual. 

4. Document the disciplinary action

In all instances, record and store a record of disciplinary actions, conversations, and investigations in a safe location. Link this folder to the employee’s file for future reference, if needed.

Include all signatures, notes, statements, and any other supporting material on what happened. You might need this to justify future termination to defend against potential legal actions in the future, depending on the severity of the case.

5. Follow up with the employee

The employee’s manager should meet with the employee after a week or two to assess their progress and check in on how they’re doing. Continue to monitor and check in with the employee over time to see if the problem remains or if the disciplinary action had the desired effect. 

If the problem continues, then the manager and HR can consider additional disciplinary actions. Again, depending on the issue at hand, this includes formal written warnings, loss of privileges, suspensions, or even termination. 

As company’s work through the disciplinary process, it’s critical that they have as much objective data and input as possible that gives them a complete picture of the issue at hand. Homebase can help provide data about employee timesheets, clock in and out habits, and attendance issues. 

Want to learn more about how Homebase can help keep track of employee attendance and work times? Get started now




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