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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Progressive Discipline

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Even when the standards for performance and behavior on the job are clearly communicated, most managers find themselves dealing with a problem employee at some point in their career. Dismissal might seem like the quickest and easiest solution when an employee’s actions disrupt the office. But a disciplinary plan that sets goals for improvement and consequences for failure can protect employees and managers alike.

Progressive discipline is one process for dealing with poor performance or misconduct that features increasingly formal efforts to provide feedback to the employee so that he or she can correct the problem. 

Human resources consultant Susan M. Heathfield stresses “the process of progressive discipline is not intended as a punishment for an employee, but to assist the employee to overcome performance problems and satisfy job expectations.” Progressive discipline is most successful when it allows the employee to become a productive member of the organization, she says. 

In the private sector, the progressive discipline system includes the following steps for managers:

  •  Talk with the employee to ensure he or she understands job requirements and expectations.
  •  Find out whether there are any issues that could be contributing to poor performance. Brainstorm how you can help the employee tackle those issues.
  •  Verbally reprimand the employee— in private—if poor performance continues to be an issue.
  •  Present a written warning to the employee and file it with the appropriate individuals in the human resources or legal department.
  •  Suspend the employee for as many as five days, depending on the severity of the infraction.

The Office of Personnel Management’s Handbook on Dealing With Workplace Violence lays out an example of how progressive discipline can work in federal offices. First, OPM advises managers to discuss potential disciplinary actions with employee relations staff, and the Office of General Counsel if necessary. If an employee’s misconduct does not endanger fellow employees or disrupt the office, then managers should apply progressive discipline before considering official adverse actions. The sequence could start with a reprimand and lead to a warning and then suspension or alternative disciplinary measures as needed. As OPM notes in its guidance, “lesser disciplinary actions involve considerably fewer procedures than the adverse actions listed below.”

Managers who find an official adverse action necessary must be familiar with the attendant laws and regulations. An adverse action can be taken only for conduct that would hamper the agency’s operations. When an adverse action is proposed, the employee is entitled to 30 days’ advanced written notice. A lesser, seven-day notice period is allowed if the agency has “reasonable cause” to believe that the employee has committed a crime and faces imprisonment. 

The written notice must provide reasons for the proposed action. Then the agency must give the employee time to respond and consider the employee’s response. When a final decision is made, the employee must be notified again. If the agency decides to take the proposed action, then the employee must be advised of his or her appeal rights. 

Progressive discipline is win-win for employees, who deserve to be given the chance to rise to expectations, and for managers, who deserve to be protected and supported for firing an employee when it’s warranted. 

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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