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An HR Glossary for HR Terms

Glossary of Human Resources Management and Employee Benefit Terms

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Disciplinary Actions

What are Disciplinary Actions?

In human resources, disciplinary actions are corrective or punitive actions taken by an organization in response to a behavioral or performance issue. In other words, disciplinary actions are the consequences employees face as the result of a workplace infraction or failure to meet performance expectations. 

What Is a Good Disciplinary Action Policy?

A good disciplinary action policy is clear, proportionate, consistent, and rational. Much like any form of effective discipline, employer disciplinary action is only effective if it is clearly communicated, consistently applied, proportionate to the offense, and tied to clearly expressed guidelines or expectations.

Therefore, the most important thing to do before creating a disciplinary action policy is to think about whether performance expectations and behavior guidelines are being communicated clearly and understood by all employees. If not, any disciplinary action taken will feel arbitrary, not to mention it will be hard to keep discipline consistent. 

The next thing to consider is the progression of disciplinary action in response to an offense. Your disciplinary policy should include preliminary actions, such as verbal and written warnings, as the first stages of response, followed by whatever actions the organization feels are appropriate to correct or halt the issue. Those actions could range from placing an underperforming employee on a performance plan to terminating an employee for a behavior or performance issue, but the policy should include a measured progression of actions that can be taken as the situation progresses.

Another critical part of any disciplinary action is documentation. Documenting the steps taken provides a record that can be useful in determining how to treat further infractions, identifying problem employees, and providing evidence of cause for dismissal in the case of a legal dispute.  

Why Are Disciplinary Actions Necessary?

Disciplinary actions are necessary because they provide the structure that backs up the guidelines and expectations organizations set out for their employees. Without any consequences for failing to perform or behave according to guidelines, employees may not feel obligated to meet expectations. Because disciplinary actions create a paper trail, they can also help clearly identify toxic individuals or situations within an organization, and that same documentation can help protect an organization in a dispute over wrongful termination. 

What Are Appropriate Disciplinary Actions? 

How your organization disciplines employees who fail to meet performance or behavior expectations is really up to the organization. While some behaviors, like sexual harassment, are likely going to be viewed and treated similarly by many organizations, it’s important to understand that every organization is different, with different cultures, management styles, expectations, risks, and more, all of which factor into the disciplinary actions they take. It’s also important to understand how outcomes play a part in the severity of the response.  

Going back to what makes a good disciplinary action policy, the best way to determine what constitutes appropriate action is to start with a full understanding of what is likely to require disciplinary action in your organization, make sure that your expectations for performance and behavior are clear, and craft proportionate responses and enforce them consistently.