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What Is Disciplinary Action?

Sean Peek
Sean Peek

A disciplinary action is a corrective measure taken to improve an employee's behavior and prevent future misconduct, violations or poor performance.

The benefit of working with people of all walks of life is the collaboration and ideas everyone brings to the table. However, while differences between co-workers and employees are typically a strength, sometimes it can lead to disagreements, conflict or inappropriate behavior. There will be times when an employee behaves in a way that requires disciplinary action, such as a verbal warning or a poor performance review. In these inevitable instances, it helps to have a disciplinary action policy in place at your company.

What is disciplinary action?

Disciplinary action is a corrective measure you take in response to an employee’s misconduct, rule violation or poor performance. Disciplinary actions can vary, often depending on the severity of the worker’s behavior. Here are the most common forms:

  • Verbal warning: A verbal warning is a formal or informal conversation between the employee and their manager pointing out the inappropriate behavior, and the actions the employee can take to resolve the situation.
  • Written warning: Written warnings are formal, recorded outlines of the employee’s misconduct, the disciplinary action taken and the next steps. A written warning helps managers and HR organize a paper trail outlining patterns and goals.
  • Poor performance review: If an employee hasn’t been doing their job well, they may be notified of their poor performance during a regular performance review. The manager will outline how the employee hasn’t been achieving their goals. The manager will also work with the employee to create an improvement plan that outlines steps to boost efficiency and quality. This plan will also detail any consequences if the employee’s performance doesn’t improve.
  • Reduction in pay: If an employee doesn’t improve their performance, management may decrease their pay or demote them. Failure to improve job performance indicates that the employee may be better suited in another area.
  • Termination: As the last step, if you feel that the employee’s work performance can’t be redeemed, you will need to terminate the employee.

 When implementing a performance improvement plan, set a concrete goal, such as a certain sales figure. Improvements in issues like disrespectful behavior are harder to quantify and may require a more personal approach.

What behaviors cause disciplinary actions?

Various behaviors may require a supervisor to intervene and take disciplinary action.

  • Threatening others: Any verbal threat of violence, no matter the tone, needs to be taken seriously with timely disciplinary action.
  • Sexual harassment: Sexual harassment is any unwanted or inappropriate verbal remarks or physical action, conducted in a sexual or suggestive manner, that one co-worker inflicts on another.
  • Fraudulent behavior: If an employee uses their position to lie to or manipulate others within the company – or outside sources – it is considered fraud.
  • Theft: If an employee is found stealing money, resources or information, the worker should be subject to fines and termination.
  • Discrimination: Discrimination is when an employee says or does something inappropriate toward another employee based on their race, gender, religion, age or any other personal aspect.

It’s important that all unacceptable behavior is outlined in your employee handbook so that all new hires are aware of the organization’s culture and expectations.

What is a disciplinary action policy?

A disciplinary action policy is an organization’s response to an employee’s wrongdoing. A disciplinary action policy is a written policy that clearly outlines specific consequences for every type of unacceptable action. The policy protects your company from allegations in the case of a wrongful termination lawsuit. It also ensures that all employees will look forward to working for your firm each day because they will expect to be treated equally.

During a new employee’s hiring process, HR should sit down and discuss your company’s disciplinary action policy with them so that everyone’s on the same page. Often, when employees are filling out their new-hire paperwork, they must sign documents stating that they read and understand these policies. Additionally, any time a policy is changed or updated, employees should be informed of the revisions.

Many companies will use data collected from HR software to get a holistic view of employees and their performance. This information can better inform supervisors of what, if any, disciplinary actions should be taken.

“We typically look at data collected in relation to disciplinary actions and employee sentiment in order to identify a market change in the office’s attitude following an intervention,” said George Santos, director of talent delivery and head of marketing at 180 Engineering. “When it comes to the big picture, we may look at overall patterns in order to determine when interventions are most needed, as well as the effectiveness of our disciplinary strategies.”


Make employees aware of any changes to the disciplinary action policy so they can meet any new expectations.

What should be included in a disciplinary action policy?

To make sure both the employee and HR group has a mutual understanding of your company’s expectations, these are some factors to include in the policy:

  • Policy overview: A disciplinary action policy should begin with an outline of what employees can expect within the policy and the steps that will be taken if an infraction occurs.
  • At-will employment: Your company’s policy should clearly state that all of its employees work for your business at will, and can be terminated at any time for any legal reason. This gives you the freedom to change employment terms when needed, such as a worker’s responsibilities, compensation and benefits. This statement also gives the employees flexibility, as they are allowed to vacate their position without notice and with no legal consequences.
  • Forms of discipline: The policy should have a section that outlines the steps that will be taken to address any misbehaviors and the forms of discipline that will ensue. This section should clearly outline why the wrongdoing is an issue and what needs to happen next to move forward. This section should also detail what consequences will occur if the employee repeats the misstep. Managers should also have a clear understanding of how to document each step of the disciplinary process, so employees are fully informed along the way.
  • Right to appeal: An employee should have the right to appeal any disciplinary decision that they disagree with. If they feel as though they weren’t treated fairly, they should be able to document their grievance and appeal the disciplinary action to HR. These rights should be outlined clearly for the employees’ reference.
  • Legal protections: Policies should also outline the company’s legal protections. This section should be created with the assistance of a legal professional, so as there are no ramifications.

It’s important that your company’s supervisors contribute new information or data so that the disciplinary policy stays current and relevant.

“If hoping to decrease disciplinary problems, you might examine documentation outlining disciplinary action employees have received, such as a series of warnings,” said Will Fang, lead digital strategist for PartnerComm. “If documentation is detailed enough, you might examine the types of rules or standards most commonly violated by employees, disciplinary action taken along with the suggested improvements, and recurrence rate of behavior requiring disciplinary action.”

Disciplinary action policy example

Here’s a general outline of a disciplinary action policy. You can also find disciplinary action templates in some of the best HR software packages available for your small business. While this is a general outline, your specific policy should be as detailed as possible.

1. Policy overview

[Company name]’s disciplinary action policy will examine the steps we will take to address any employee failure to perform or any behavior deemed inappropriate. This policy applies to all employees.

2. At-will employment

Every employee of [company name] is an at-will employee, and can be terminated at any time for any reason.

3. Inappropriate behavior

The following types of behavior are not tolerated at [company name]. Disciplinary action will be taken in the event of any of these issues in accordance with their severity:

  • Verbal harassment
  • Sexual harassment
  • Threats of violence
  • Fraudulent behavior
  • Theft of company items
  • Discriminating others

4. Disciplinary steps

In the invent an employee participates in any of the above actions, our disciplinary process will move through these steps:

  1. Your supervisor will document the misconduct, and discuss it with you privately.
  2. Your supervisor will file the official forms with HR.
  3. You will be informed of the disciplinary action in a timely manner. [Outline the disciplinary actions here.]
  4. You will be informed of the reactive steps that need to be taken to remedy the situation.

5. Right to appeal

As an employee of [company name], if you do not believe you were treated fairly during the disciplinary process, you may appeal this decision.

Image Credit: fizkes / Getty Images
Sean Peek
Sean Peek
Contributing Writer
Sean Peek has written more than 100 B2B-focused articles on various subjects including business technology, marketing and business finance. In addition to researching trends, reviewing products and writing articles that help small business owners, Sean runs a content marketing agency that creates high-quality editorial content for both B2B and B2C businesses.