Progressive discipline overview

Important: This content is for general information purposes only. It’s about the discipline of an individual employee who is not covered by a collective agreement. If your organization has a collective agreement in place that includes a discipline process, follow it. This is not legal advice. This information should be read and understood in its entirety. Reading and/or reproducing only parts of this section could result in misunderstanding its contents.

If you have an employee who’s acting inappropriately, unprofessionally, not completing their job duties to your organization’s standards, and/or is not following rules or codes of conduct — and coaching or counselling has not helped — you may need to take disciplinary action.

Progressive discipline is a sequence of steps that begins with minor discipline and advances to more serious action, up to termination, if the employee doesn’t improve their behaviour or performance.

A progressive discipline process provides the employee with a reasonable chance to correct and improve their behaviour or performance while giving fair notice of the consequences if they don’t.

For employers, a well-managed and documented progressive discipline process helps address behaviour and/or performance issues disrupting the workplace and care for the safety and well-being of other staff, volunteers, and/or clients.

Progressive discipline can also lay the necessary groundwork for legally defensible termination of employment for employees who cannot or will not improve. This can help manage liability risk to allegations of discrimination, constructive dismissal and/or wrongful termination.

For employees, progressive discipline is an action beyond coaching or counselling that aims to help them:

  • Correct problematic behaviour and/or performance.
  • Maintain and/or reach acceptable performance standards consistent with the organization's needs to achieve its goals and deliver its services.
  • Become a positive contributor to the organization.

Progressive discipline may also help improve employee morale and retention by showing that there are consequences for inappropriate behaviour or poor performance.

Discipline must be corrective and never punitive, such as taking away privileges or incentives, requiring an employee to work extra hours or unfavourable shifts, reducing or withholding their pay, reducing their hours of work or humiliating them. Taking any of these actions may result in a constructive dismissal.

Constructive dismissal occurs when there is a significant change in the employment relationship without the employee’s actual or implied consent and the employee resigns within a reasonable time after learning of the changes. For example, the employer significantly reduces an employee’s salary or makes significant changes to an employee’s work location, hours of work, authority or position. See the Employment Standards Act for your jurisdiction for more information.

Your organization’s approach to discipline should be set out in a policy rather than determined after an incident has occurred, so all employees are aware of the process. Your discipline policy should clearly introduce and outline disciplinary procedures.

The specific discipline issued depends on several factors, including the severity and frequency of the behaviour or performance issue, mitigating and aggravating circumstances, and the employee’s self-awareness and attempts to change.

If there’s a significant performance issue or infraction, it’s possible to skip to a more serious level of discipline rather than starting at the beginning. This process should also be outlined clearly in your organization’s progressive discipline policy.

Most progressive discipline processes include the following steps:

  • Information gathering
  • Determining the appropriate action
  • Verbal warning
  • Written warning
  • Suspension (with or without pay)
  • Termination

If the problem is corrected at a stage of the progressive discipline process, the disciplinary process ends.

Recommendation

Before starting a progressive discipline process, you should already be coaching or counselling employees who are experiencing poor performance or behavioural issues.

You should document all coaching or counselling meetings held with employees. This is a key part of supervision and performance management that provides a record of what was discussed, actions to be taken by the employer and employee and the outcome(s). This essential information will be needed if the employee’s performance does not improve, and discipline is considered a next step.

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