In most cases, specific disciplinary measures lay the groundwork for fair and legal firings.

Discipline puts the employee on notice of the severity of the problem, as well as the consequences for not correcting it. If the problem persists and terminating the employee becomes necessary, you’ll have a record of the problem and the actions you took to address it.

Documentation Is Key

Most employers follow progressive discipline wherein an employee receives a series of warnings before termination. For example, the employee may get a verbal warning for a first offense, a written warning if the problem continues, a final written warning and, as a last step, termination.

Cutting corners with documentation is the single biggest mistake managers make when handling progressive discipline and terminations. You need to recognize that your company may have to explain a termination decision long after it occurs. In the case of employees terminated for poor job performance or misconduct, this means having on file all performance reviews, notes from counseling sessions and written warnings leading to the termination decision.

For complete and effective documentation, be sure to cover all the following elements:

  1. The Facts: Include the date, time and location of the problem. Where applicable, cover the five W’s (who, what, where, when, and witnesses). Be as precise and thorough as possible.

Example: It’s not enough to just write that an employee is “excessively late.” Your documentation should indicate each date the employee was late, and how late he or she was each time.

  1. The specific rule or standard violated: Identify whether the employee has violated a rule or standard and specify what it is. These rules or standards don’t have to be included in an employee handbook to apply. They may be found in managers’ manuals, email announcements, memos, postings and other formats.

Example: If a sales manager has distributed a memo establishing sales objectives, this could serve as a written standard referenced in the write-up about poor sales performance.

  1. Objectives and expectations for improvement: If applicable, indicate exactly what you expect the employee to do to correct or resolve the problem.

Example: If an employee is being written up for tardiness, your objective could be, “You must be present and ready to begin work each scheduled day at 8:30 a.m.” Or if a write-up addresses poor sales performance, you could state the number of sales to be met in a specific timeframe (or however you measure sales productivity).

  1. Suggestions for meeting objectives: If applicable, indicate what you’ve done or what you agree to do to help the employee meet the objectives described in the write-up.

Example: You may suggest specific tools or resources that will help the employee, such as training, webinars, instructional videos, practicing certain tasks or pairing up with a helper or mentor.

  1. Disciplinary action being taken: Indicate the specific action you are taking now because of the employee’s nonperformance or rule violation.

Example: This could be a verbal warning, written warning, suspension with or without pay, demotion, decrease in pay, probation or termination.

  1. Consequences for not correcting problem: A formal write-up also should indicate what action you will take later if the employee doesn’t meet the stated objectives and expectations for improvement.

Example: Depending on where you are in the disciplinary process, this could be an additional written warning, suspension with or without pay, demotion, decrease in pay, probation or termination.

  1. Signatures and dates: The manager who prepares the write-up always should sign the document and indicate the date when it was reviewed with the employee. It’s also important to have the employee sign and date the document. At a minimum, the employee is acknowledging that he or she reviewed the document and that his or her manager discussed its contents.

A Careful Approach

Documentation is one critical factor when disciplining employees, but there are many other factors to consider. Get an in-depth review of common performance management scenarios and what you can do to enhance their outcomes by watching the FREE webinar, 5 Performance Management Scenarios: Navigating Everyday Encounters for Greater Results.

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