Disciplinary Action at Work: All HR Needs to Know

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Disciplinary Action at Work: All HR Needs to Know

Disciplinary action is an essential tool for managing unwanted behavior in the workplace. As uncomfortable as it may be, it’s integral to building an environment people want to work in. Not only do disciplinary action policies justify involuntary terminations, but they also help you build a safe, productive workplace.

Let’s have a look at what HR can do to handle disciplinary action in the best way possible.

What is disciplinary action?
Examples of behaviors that constitute disciplinary action
Disciplinary action examples
Disciplinary action policy best practices

What is disciplinary action?

When you hire an employee, you expect them to maintain a certain level of performance and comply with employer policies, procedures, and laws. Employee disciplinary actions are corrective actions a company takes in response to an employee failing to meet performance expectations or having behavioral problems.

The purpose of disciplinary action is to correct the behavior of the employee while documenting the issues in case the problem arises again in the future.  In other words, the primary goal of disciplinary action is not to punish the employee.

The role of Human Resources during workplace disciplinary action varies on the organization and available resources.

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For example, in some companies, HR is only involved in more serious disciplinary actions. In other organizations, they may be involved in all disciplinary meetings. In both cases, HR is responsible for outlining disciplinary action policy and formalizing procedures for responding to actions that go against the company’s rules. Generally, these policies are outlined in the employee handbook.

Disciplinary Action: Behaviors and Example Actions

Examples of behaviors that constitute disciplinary action

While your organization has its own norms around desirable and undesirable workplace behavior, there are some examples of behaviors that are unwanted in any business:

Employee misconduct

This is a broad term that captures two kinds of employee misconduct, general and gross. General misconduct is behavior that does not mean to harm others or the organization. Examples are not following a manager’s orders or smoking in a non-smoking area. These kinds of misconduct do not require immediate termination.

Gross misconduct, on the other hand, earns immediate termination in many cases. These are behaviors such as theft or intentional property damage.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace is defined as unwanted sexual behavior that causes someone to feel sad, frightened, offended, or humiliated. In the United States, sexual harassment is illegal but does not always result in the termination of the perpetrator.


Workplace discrimination is when an employee is treated differently or less favorably because of their gender, race, sexuality, religion, pregnancy, or other characteristics. Discrimination can happen between employees or between employees and employers. A formal non-discrimination policy helps fight discrimination in the workplace.

Absenteeism issues

There are many different types of work absenteeism but simply put, absenteeism is when an employee doesn’t show up for work when they are supposed to. It is normal to miss work due to illness or an emergency, but absenteeism is usually unplanned and often happens without a notice. It can become a substantial problem when it impacts other employees’ work.

Absenteeism is often a sign of deeper workplace issues like poor management and employee burnout.

Work performance

When an employee fails to reach or maintain a company’s work performance criteria tied to their job’s responsibilities, it can result in disciplinary action. Poor work performance is not based on external factors such as ill health, which prevents an employee from working.

Sometimes support from the team and managers can help underperforming employees improve. Still, other times, performance issues reveal more serious problems such as disengagement or unhappiness in the workplace. 

Bullying in the workplace

Workplace bullying is targeted behavior directed at one person or a few people and can happen between employer and employees or just between employees. Bullying can be verbal or physical and is intended to offend, mock, or intimidate.

Some examples are:

  • harsh criticism in front of other employees,
  • extreme performance monitoring,
  • insults or name-calling,
  • and deliberate exclusion of specific individuals from meetings or team events. 


Unlike absenteeism, where the employee does not show up, tardiness is when they show up but are consistently late. Irregular lateness getting to work is unavoidable due to unforeseen circumstances. However, chronic tardiness can damage the team’s morale and be a cause for corrective action. ​

Disciplinary action examples

Employers have multiple options for how to take disciplinary action. Usually, the goal is to correct poor performance or behavior by identifying the problems, causes, and solutions rather than punishing the worker.

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Typically, there’s a progressive discipline policy in place. That means that the corrective steps begin with the lowest severity and become increasingly severe when an employee fails to correct the situation after being given an opportunity to do so.

Here are some examples: 

A verbal warningA verbal warning is a step in which a manager or supervisor talks to an employee about problems involving workplace behavior, conduct, or overall job performance. Generally, if it is the team member’s first warning or the issue is minor, a one-time verbal warning is all that is needed.
A written warningThis kind of warning is in the form of a written document that alerts the employee to their misconduct in the workplace. Generally, a written reprimand will include the possible consequences if the team member does not fix their conduct.
Loss of privilegesIt is sometimes possible that poor employee behavior is related to certain privileges, for example, recklessly driving a company car, spending too much money on a business credit card, and getting too rowdy at business parties. In these cases, an organization may choose to take away the employee’s rights to those privileges so issues can’t happen again.
A performance improvement planIn some instances, a performance improvement plan (PIP) might be the first strategy for the employee and is more common when a team member receives a poor performance review. The goal of a PIP is to outline explicit objectives the employee needs to meet to avoid transfer, demotion, or dismissal.
RetrainingIf an employee’s poor performance comes from a lack of understanding of their responsibilities or is often making mistakes, they might need retraining as a form of disciplinary action.

The retraining plan might include re-reading the company’s procedures and policies, written tests, or online courses. The goals of the retraining should be clearly communicated and should consist of specific outcomes.
DemotionA demotion is the lowering of an employee’s job title, role, or responsibilities within the organization. This can be a permanent reassignment or temporary should performance or behavior improve. It is often used as an alternative to firing an employee.

However, demotions can make an employee feel unimportant and unmotivated, which can further negatively impact their poor performance. Employers should thoroughly consider if a demotion can actually achieve their desired goals.
Temporary pay cutA pay cut is a reduction in an employee’s compensation, such as salary, benefits, or hours. It is not just limited to monetary compensation. Pay cuts are a tricky disciplinary action as they must be aligned with federal and local laws, namely the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in the United States.
SuspensionA disciplinary suspension is when an organization retains a team member but asks them not to come to work or engage in any work-related activities. Unless there is a clause in the worker’s contract that states your employer can suspend them without pay, usually the employee is paid during this time.

We commonly see this when someone is under HR investigation and asked to step away from their work until the investigation is complete.
TerminationTermination is the last option if the previous disciplinary actions do not achieve the desired outcome or an employee has conducted an act of gross misconduct. Each country has different dismissal procedures and protections that must be valid in order to let go of an employee.

Disciplinary action policy best practices

Employee disciplinary action can be one of the most demanding aspects of HR. The best way to set the HR team up for success is by establishing expectations for the team and always documenting the disciplinary process from the very beginning. Here are some best practices to get your team started: 

1. Carry out an HR investigation

Carrying out an HR investigation is especially important when dealing with serious issues like bullying, harassment, or gross misconduct. You need to conduct an investigation to ensure that you can resolve the issue and take relevant disciplinary action.

In addition, you’re making sure that you’re treating everyone involved fairly while creating a safe work environment for all your employees.

2. Create a clear progressive discipline policy

You need to state what actions you will take in case of specific unwanted behaviors. For example, some behaviors might warrant immediate termination, while for others, you might implement a three-strike rule.

Make it clear what the goal of each action is and remember, it should be to correct the behavior, not to punish the person.

3. Communicate your disciplinary action policy

Employees must know what behaviors constitute disciplinary action at your organization. You might want to include concrete examples in your policy. For instance, describe what would be considered misconduct at your company.

Include the disciplinary policy in your employee handbook or intranet pages and make it easily accessible. You might also consider making the reading mandatory or asking the managers to discuss the policy with their team members.

4. Explain how to appeal the decision

Your employees must know how they can appeal a disciplinary decision and what steps they can take to do so. You also have to make sure that they know you’re taking them seriously and that you want to hear their side of the story even after you’ve made the decision.

5. Educate managers

Any time a supervisor does not discipline an employee with the same procedures as another team member, you set yourself up for legal action for discrimination and unequal treatment.

Your role as the HR professional is to educate managers on the disciplinary action policy and how to apply it. You also need to ensure that they’re using it consistently and correctly. You can do this by holding regular manager training and creating a system that allows you to review disciplinary write-ups easily.

6. Document your disciplinary actions

Documenting everything will help you manage progressive actions regarding employee discipline and create a legally defensible process. Make sure to keep everything in a secure employee file.

7. Keep the policy updated

Regularly review your disciplinary action policy to ensure it is still relevant and see if there’s anything you should add. For example, when moving to a hybrid/remote setup, you might want to give examples of what certain unwanted behaviors such as bullying or harassment look like in a virtual setting.

To conclude

Taking disciplinary action is not pleasant for any of the parties involved. However, having a clear disciplinary action policy with outlined unwanted behaviors and steps to take will help you ensure that you can handle the matters fairly and transparently.

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