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A 4-Step Approach to Progressive Discipline

A 4-Step Approach to Progressive Discipline

This blog post provides a basic template for a progressive discipline process—a common approach to managing employee disciplinary issues and improving employee performance through clear and consistent guidelines.

The progressive discipline process is designed to give an employee:

  • notice that job performance is not meeting expectations or needs improvement,
  • opportunities to improve job performance, and
  • information concerning what to expect if performance does not improve.

Although designed as a series of escalating steps, employers may start at a higher step, including termination, for the most serious infractions. A supervisor should be familiar with any applicable collective bargaining agreements, organizational personnel policies and practices, and should consult with Human Resources staff prior to taking disciplinary action.

The 4-Step Progressive Discipline Template

A good supervisor takes time to ensure the employee understands job responsibilities and organizational expectations.  When problems occur, the supervisor should offer sufficient coaching or counseling to “course correct” and fix a minor issue before it becomes a problem.

When proactive coaching does not work, I recommend using the following four steps:

Step 1: Verbal Warning

In this step, the supervisor informs the employee of the concerns and listens to any information the employee provides. If the supervisor believes discipline is warranted, the employee is given a verbal warning. The warning briefly establishes the problem to be corrected and informs the employee what needs to be done. The employee should also be warned that failure to correct the problem and any further violations of rules/policies may result in further discipline, up to and including termination—a warning that should be repeated with each subsequent discipline.

Written documentation of the verbal warning should also be shared with the employee and noted in the employee’s personnel file:typically a memo with the subject line “Verbal Warning” suffices.

Step 2: Written Warning

If an employee fails to improve, repeats behavior that led to the verbal warning or commits a new, more serious offense, a written warning is issued.

The supervisor meets with the employee and shares the alleged problematic behavior. The employee is given an opportunity to tell her or his side of the story. If discipline is warranted, a written warning is issued.A written warning should always be delivered verbally and in writing to the employee, and then copied in a memo to the personnel file with the subject line, “Written Warning”. The “written” versus “verbal” label signifies the more serious nature of the action.

(Note: Sometimes an employee will fail to improve performance or commit a new infraction, but it is deemed not serious enough to escalate the discipline. In these cases, an employee can be given additional verbal warnings.)

Step 3: Suspension

If an organization has a Step 3 discipline that includes suspension without pay, a supervisor should generally consult legal counsel prior to proceeding. Employee discipline that involves a loss of pay also requires a “Loudermill hearing” be held between the employee and supervisor.

The employee should be given written notice of the alleged violation(s) along with an explanation of the evidence and time and date for the hearing. The employee is then given a chance to correct any factual error and provide any mitigating information at the hearing, information that supervisor must consider prior to rendering a decision. The supervisor should include an additional person in the meeting, such as another supervisor/manager or Human Resources staff, to assist in note-taking and to provide a witness.

It is a good practice to wait at least a day before rendering a decision. ‘Sleeping on it’ conveys that the employee’s information was taken seriously.

The supervisor’s decision should be in writing and should clearly explains the facts and the conclusions found that support the discipline. The supervisor should meet with the employee to deliver the memo and briefly explain the discipline. Copies of the written notice and the disciplinary notice should be placed in the employee’s file.

Step 4: Termination

At Step 4, legal counsel should be consulted prior to finalizing any investigation or delivering any written materials to the employee.

A Loudermill hearing is required prior to terminating the employee. Because termination may lead to a more formal legal process, it is important to take care in preparing any documents and in conducting any meetings with the employee.

A supervisor may allow a second suspension before termination.


The desired outcome of the progressive discipline process is to allow employees to self-correct poor performance and to retain productive workers. However, sometimes the best outcome is termination. A clear and consistent progressive discipline policy is a useful tool for retaining good employees and for fairly terminating those who fail to meet employment standards.

Are there specific questions you’d like answered or topics you’d like to see covered? Let me know in the comments below or email me directly at

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Marci Wright

Marci Wright writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Marci Wright retired in 2014 after over 16 years as the City of Shoreline’s first Human Resources Director. Previously, she worked for Thurston County as Director of Employee and Administrative Services (1987 - 1997) and Deputy Prosecuting Attorney (1980 - 1987). Currently volunteering for MRSC she continues to be interested in the full range of human resource issues, especially training, facilitation and problem resolution.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.