What is a progressive discipline policy?

A progressive discipline policy is a core building block of an HR policy for any nonprofit organization. Although it isn’t a very sexy topic, we often hear from organizations who are trying to address performance issues on their team and have no established process or policy to do so. If you are in this situation, hopefully this blog post will help you get started!

What is a progressive discipline policy for?

A policy like this one lays out a series of steps an organization can take in response to behavioural or performance issues with an employee. At its best, a policy like this can both ensure that an employer or a colleague has a clear idea of how to address issues with an employee. It should also offer that staff member reasonable time frames to change or improve the issue in question, and a fair process for evaluation. As described by this website for small businesses,

“Progressive discipline is the process of taking progressively stricter action when an employee fails to correct a problem in their performance or behavior after being given reasonable time to do so.”

Why is it important?

  • Performance or behavioural issues are often very stressful for everyone involved. Having a policy in place before this occurs means all parties involved know what process to expect, and what to do next
  • It pushes employers to be clear and direct about their expectations of their employees
  • It can create opening for training, mentorship and supporting your employees
  • If you are in the position of needing to fire an employee, it allows you to clearly document the steps you took before this decision. This helps protect you and the organization.

What goes in a disciplinary policy?

A typical progressive disciplinary process starts with a verbal warning, and goes all the way to firing an employee. Examples of the steps of a disciplinary policy include:

  • Verbal warning
  • Informal meeting with supervisor
  • Formal reprimand in writing
  • Formal disciplinary meeting
  • Penalties (ex, unpaid leave)
  • Termination

You need to think about having:

  • Clear timelines for improvement. Reasonable time frames can be recommended in the policy itself
  • Clarity of roles. Who is responsible for delivering these warnings, and with what process? Does your organization have clarity on supervision? Would it be someone who is responsible for HR or to an Executive Director? What if someones observes a performance issue, but does not have a supervisory role over that employee?
  • Parameters for when, and how, you can skip steps of the disciplinary process
  • Ensuring that the process is respectful of the employee’s privacy

Things to Watch Out For in a Disciplinary Process

There are number of additional questions you might want to consider, depending on the culture and values of your organization. Many of these have to do with deciding when an issue in your workplace is a performance or behavioural issue that should be addressed with this kind of policy, or is actually something else.

  • What if the problem is actually about an interpersonal conflict between employees? How would we assess whether this is the case, and what would be our response in that situation?
  • What will we do if the issue is related to the capacity of the employee? For example, because they are on a new medication or are dealing with a medical or mental health issue?
  • What do we do if the issue in question is related to unreasonable workload and poor working conditions, as is often the case in nonprofit organizations?
  • How do we ensure that our progressive disciplinary policy is non-discriminatory? Our research at COCo has surfaced numerous stories of organizations who have disciplinary policies apply them unevenly, depending on the race, gender, or sexual orientation of the employee. Other stories include policies like this one being wielded particularly strongly against women of colour, as described in this infographic. How will you take into account the possibility of implicit and explicit bias presenting itself in the disciplinary process?
  • What is the relationship between the disciplinary policy relate and your policies or processes around sexual and psychological harassment, which Quebec organizations are required to have?
  • How does your disciplinary policy feed in, or not feed in, to your annual evaluation processes?
  • As written, will this policy encourage, or discourage, a culture of direct feedback? How can we write it to further encourage direct feedback in our organization?

As the Ontario Human Rights Commission says, “A progressive performance management approach that takes into account accommodation needs, and is consistently applied and documented, is a best practice.” Part of their article on the topic also raises the issue of disciplinary processes that are used in response to challenges to discriminatory practices:

Employees who face discriminatory treatment may legitimately object to such treatment – a person’s behaviour may itself be a reaction to the experience of discrimination or the existence of a poisoned environment. In some cases, employees who challenge discriminatory treatment are subjected to discipline or other forms of management scrutiny for having engaged in conflicts with their co-workers or supervisors. If an employee states that his or her behaviour was caused by or linked to discriminatory treatment, an employer needs to investigate the underlying allegations. If the employee’s behaviour can be seen as a response that is linked to discriminatory behaviour that has not been addressed by the company, this should be taken into account in determining what action to take. A decision to proceed with discipline, including termination, without having considered the impact of the poisoned environment may be found to be discriminatory.[76]

Examples of Progressive Discipline Policies

A simple google search turns up dozens of good templates for progressive discipline policies. In addition, we have attached our own, including our conflict resolution process. This policy has some major differences than others, because we are a non-hierarchical organization.

Lastly, don’t forget that a policy is no good if you are not planning to actually implement it. Some questions to ask yourself might be:

  • Do I feel capable of implementing this policy if needed?
  • Will I or my nonprofit organization need training in order to implement this policy well?