Disciplinary action or “progressive discipline” is used to assist employees to improve sub-standard job performance. Performance issues addressed by this process are more serious than those addressed using constructive critical feedback. The first step in progressive discipline is called a Verbal Warning.
Disciplinary action is used when an employee:
- makes a serious mistake OR
- fails to respond to constructive critical feedback given one or more times.
Prior to using disciplinary action, supervisors and managers must consult, understand and comply with:
- their organization’s policy and procedures
- requirements in collective agreements (in workplaces with unionized employees)
- employment standards or labour regulations in their area.
Follow these steps when giving a verbal warning.
- First, identify the performance problem. Ensure the problem is either ongoing or serious enough to require a verbal warning. Constructive critical feedback should be used at least once prior to verbal warning for less serious performance concerns.
- Gather factual information regarding the ongoing issue or the incident. Be quick but thorough – delays in giving the warning will reduce its effectiveness.
- Document the information in writing. Be specific with dates and times when possible
- Schedule a meeting with the employee during their normal working hours.
- Ask another supervisor or manager to attend the meeting as a note-taker and witness. Union agreements may require attendance by a union representative at formal disciplinary meetings. Your meeting should be held within three business days and not later than five business days from the date you became aware of the issue.
- Meet with the employee in a private location away from the eyes and ears of co-workers, customers or the public.
- Factually describe (who, what, where, when) the performance issue or the incident. Never tell an employee that they have a poor or bad “attitude”. If you use these words, the employee will likely respond with “What do you mean, bad attitude?” Stick with one or two concrete examples of where their conduct, behaviour or job performance is not acceptable. Be firm, clear and specific.
- Always use the phrase “This is a verbal warning” and use it only once. This distinguishes the current warning from other verbal feedback and from a written warning which is the next step in the progressive disciplinary process.
- Keep the tone of the interview calm, professional and non-judgmental. Do not raise your voice and resist the temptation to argue or debate. Avoid using emotionally charged words (e.g., incompetent, untrustworthy, disloyal, just to name a few) or generalizations (you always or you never).
- Describe the corrective action required; make your comments specific and instructive
- Clarify the performance standards that must be met – make sure you indicate that performance improvements must be “immediate” and “ongoing”. This helps prevent employees who tend to yo-yo between improving their performance for a short while and allowing things to slip again.
- If the employee lacks the skill to do their job, identify training or support required and set a schedule for the training to occur.
- Invite the employee to ask questions and clarify your expectations. If it feels like the interview is becoming an argument or debate, restate the expectations one more time and then end the interview politely and professionally.
- Following the interview ensure that the minutes or notes are typed and place them on the employee’s personnel file.
Notes taken during disciplinary action may be considered to be legal documents. This documentation also may be used in the future as part of formal proceedings (e.g., if a written warning is required, if an employee grieves the warning or during wrongful dismissal lawsuit brought by the employee against his/her former employer). It is important that notes be professional, complete, accurate, typed and securely stored either in electronic form or as a hard copy.
Employer policy may require employees to sign the notes taken during disciplinary interviews. Employees will often refuse because they believe their signature indicates agreement or consent, resulting in an impasse. It is not really necessary to have the employee sign the notes at all. However, if policy requires it and if the employee refuses to sign, the supervisor or manager should write: “Presented to employee for signature. Employee declined to do so.” Then date and sign the notes and place them in the employees personnel file.
Verbal warnings are not appropriate when the employee’s performance problem is very serious (e.g., health or safety of others has been jeopardized, or unethical/illegal activity has occurred). In very serious situations, a written warning or even dismissal may be warranted. In a small number of cases the employee is dismissed with “just cause”. Supervisors and managers MUST consult more senior management and a lawyer before dismissing any employee regardless of the circumstances.