• 11 min read

How to Effectively Discipline an Employee

Bryan J Driscoll, JD
Bryan J Driscoll, JD

Freelance Writer and HR Consultant

Reviewed by Melina Theodorou

manager effectively disciplining employee and asking to talk

Sometimes, disciplining an employee is an avoidable but necessary part of running an HR department. Indeed, taking disciplinary action is required to keep your workplace safe for everyone.

Many employees may take disciplinary action personally but when there’s a foundation of trust and effective communication between employees and their managers, it makes for less tense conversations and a more constructive outcome.

So, how do you go about doing that (without making matters worse in the meantime)?

Well, you’ve come to the right place!

Our helpful guide will help you take the right steps when you need to discipline an employee and help them grow within the workplace.

What is employee discipline?

Employee discipline is the process through which your company disciplines employees for inappropriate workplace behavior. As part of a good employee management process, employee discipline seeks to correct and eliminate unacceptable behavior, not to embarrass or degrade the employee.

An employee discipline policy will let your employees know what’s expected of them from their first day with the company. That’s why it’s crucial that you develop comprehensive HR policies, clearly communicating your expectations and the ramifications for a policy violation.

Reasons for employee discipline

To help your employees understand what you expect of them, you need to define what appropriate behavior is for your company. Nearly half of all employees have observed misconduct at work, which violates their company’s standards, but not everyone reported such behaviors.

It’s essential that your employees are aware of what is expected of them and how they should proceed if they witness someone behave inappropriately at work. Therefore, it’s vital that you include the steps employees need to follow in such instances within your company handbook.

Here are some examples of what would necessitate employee discipline:

Methods of employee discipline

You should be clear about the consequences of an employee violating your code of conduct and company policies.

To comply with federal, state, and local labor laws, you must establish written policies that will be implemented fairly every time. We recommend using a progressive discipline method which, as the name suggests, imposes a more severe punishment with each infraction.

For especially egregious violations which put your company at risk of litigation or your employees at risk, however, you may need to consider the immediate termination of the perpetrator in question.

Below, we look at the four main methods of employee discipline which you can utilize in different situations:

1. Verbal warning

The first step in the progressive discipline process is a verbal warning. When an employee violates your policy or acts in a way that opposes company standards, pull them aside and have a discussion with them about their behavior.

Either the employee’s direct supervisor or a HR team member can have this conversation and it can be an informal chat or a one-to-one meeting that will help them get the point across.

While this initial verbal warning is a brief discussion, we recommend that you have your manager, or HR team, document this discussion and keep detailed notes so you can refer to them later on.

2. Written warning

If an employee violates a policy a second time, or if they infringe more serious rules, you will need to provide them with a written warning. It’s essential to have a template that all managers and HR personnel to use to ensure continuity of your processes.

Within the written warning, the manager should describe in detail the incident that took place. It should also note if a prior verbal warning was given and when this was. Moreover, the document should lay out clear steps for the employee to help them address their behavior and suggest how their manager will support them.

If a manager is filling out the written warning form, it’s recommended that the manager have HR review the document and make any changes they deem necessary. While you should train your managers on how to handle these situations and prepare these documents, it’s important that these written warnings are gauged by the HR team, and legal team depending on the severity of the situation, to ensure that your company is not subject to any legal liability.

Once the written warning has been approved by the aforementioned parties, then the document can be sent to the employee.

That said, don’t just hand them the document and walk away. You still need to have a discussion with the employee about the importance of following company policies, rectifying their behavior and the potential consequences if no changes are made.

Have the employee sign the document, acknowledging that they have been given a warning, put the original in their personnel file and give them a copy for their records.

3. Suspension

The next step in a progressive discipline policy is to suspend the employee. This step may also occur as a first step, depending on the severity of the employee’s actions.

Suspending an employee is not a step to take lightly. In the cases where previous warnings have been issued, you must ensure that the employee was given the opportunity to correct their behavior first.

You can suspend an employee with or without pay and for however long you deem necessary. The more severe the violation, the longer the employee should be suspended, and probably without pay.

As with all HR-related matters, it’s vital to document everything. Note in the employee’s personnel file the reason for their suspension, the length, and whether they will be receiving compensation during this time.

Your suspension notice should also note whether the employee needs to take further actions to be able to complete any items before being allowed to return to work. For example, if an employee is suspended due to their ill temper, they could be required to complete an anger management course before they can return to the office. 

4. Termination

The final step in a progressive discipline policy is also one that you hopefully won’t need to use. While there are many reasons to terminate an employee, it’s never an easy choice.

Termination should be reserved for the most serious offenses and where employees show an inability to improve their behavior or performance. When an employee is carrying their weight or is creating a toxic environment that affects others or puts them at risk, removing that employee from the team can have a substantially positive impact on the rest of your team.

However, to proceed with termination based on these grounds, you must have clear and sufficient documentation that demonstrate how the employee failed to adhere to company standards, policies, and rules.

If you have an employee who has been given every opportunity to correct their behavior, but they have failed to do so, termination may be the best action. Tracking employee performance, in these cases is also very important as you will be able to illustrate the employee’s failure to meet their goals.

Steps to disciplining an employee

It’s important that you never discipline an employee without just cause. Not only can that come across as abusive and tank employee morale, but it could also be illegal on the grounds of discrimination.

Following these steps will help you ensure that you have valid reasons and evidence to proceed with disciplinary actions:

1. Review the filed complaint 

When one employee acts inappropriately toward another, the employee who experienced this inappropriate behavior can file a complaint. In these instances, your employee handbook should clearly state how an employee can proceed with a formal complaint against someone else.

Not only does this give employees confidence that their concerns will be taken seriously, but it also gives your HR team clear steps to follow when they receive a complaint. If you treat one complaint differently from another, your company could face discrimination claims.

Procedures for filing a complaint do not have to be complex. The employee can request a meeting with HR where they discuss the issue. The employee may then file a formal, written complaint alleging wrongdoing against another employee. The HR should also strive to keep the identity of the person who has filed the complaint confidential.

2. Conduct a thorough investigation

After receiving a complaint for misconduct, your HR team will need to investigate. If the matter is legally sensitive, failing to investigate could put your company in legal jeopardy.

Part of the investigation will encompass speaking with any witnesses who may have seen what happened, as well as the employee who may have violated your company’s code of conduct.

It’s vital that your HR team collects extensive documentation including:

  • Complaint forms
  • Written material that are relevant to the investigation such as emails, notes and minutes
  • Witness reports and testimonies by other employees
  • Reports of past written and verbal warnings
  • Meeting dates with the employee in question
  • Notices for disciplinary action or termination

Having a record of all the events that took place will allow you to build a case, especially the alleged wrongdoer has been reported for serious misconduct.

3. Allow the employee to respond to allegations

When HR conducts their investigation, they must give the employee whose actions they’re investigating an opportunity to respond to the complaint.

This is where an internal grievance procedure comes in where the accused employee can initiate a grievance with their supervisor or a member of HR. 

The employee can offer their own point of view to the situation, which will allow the HR team to have a complete perspective. Even if your company still proceeds with disciplinary action afterwards, it’s important to have both sides of the story before making a final decision.

Alternatively, mediation (where appropriate) could also help facilitate a discussion between the parties involved, helping them find a common solution to the issue at hand.

4. Render a decision

It’s important to follow a progressive discipline approach and impose sanctions fairly. Taking extreme measures for minor infractions could be counterproductive, and the employee in question will likely accept your decision for disciplinary action if they feel it is a fair decision based on the consequences of their actions.

Remember that this is a confidential matter, which should be kept between the parties involved. Once the final decision has been made, it’s vital to add any documentation in the employee’s personnel file.

5. Allow them to appeal

When an employee receives a notice for formal disciplinary action against them, they should be given the opportunity to appeal to this decision. In the case of severe punishments like a suspension or termination, giving an employee the opportunity to appeal the decision is fair.

Your appeal process doesn’t need to be complicated. The employee can file an appeal request with HR, submitting documentation and reasons why they believe they should be granted an appeal. The HR is not obligated to grant this appeal but, if they do, they should give the employee the chance to present their reasons why their punishment should be lessened or revoked. The final decision will depend on the situation, evidence presented, and arguments made.

Legal considerations

It’s important to be aware of employment and labor laws when dealing with employee discipline. Indeed, if you are not read up on local, regional and federal laws that are in place, it’s important do so and ensure that you do not subject your company to potential litigation.

Furthermore, you should also review the employment contract of the employee in question before taking any disciplinary action against them, as there may be specific clauses regarding disciplinary action.

In cases of severe misconduct, your company may also need to consider seeking legal counsel about the most appropriate actions you’ll need to take.

The big takeaway here is this: what you do to one employee, you need to do all. If you give an employee a written warning for sexual harassment (which is not recommended) and you terminate another for the same violation, you open your company up to potential legal liability for discrimination, wrongful termination, and a whole host of other matters.

Final thoughts

It’s imperative that your company fosters a safe and welcoming environment for all of its employees.

By clearly defining your company policies your staff know what is expected of them as well as what will be the implications if they violate the company’s code of conduct. In the event that you are required to discipline an employee, it’s crucial to conduct a thorough investigation and take immediate action in order to restore and maintain safety and order in the workplace.

Have you got any professional advice about disciplining employees? Let us know in the comments section below!


This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 19 December 2018.