Progressive Employment Discipline Policies

As I’ve written before, farms and agribusinesses should be aware of applicable employment laws and should manage their workforce to maximize potential and minimize legal liability. One way employers can do that is to use a progressive discipline system. Employment policies will not be the same at a tech company with 60 employees and a mint farmer with 3 employees. Policies should be scaled to size. A large employer may have a full binder of policies, forms, agreements, and rules. A small shop may use just a few pages to lay out reasons for termination. But the idea is the same. Progressive discipline attempts to address and correct an employee’s work performance by providing feedback through a series of increasingly formal steps. The process typically includes one or more of the following steps:

  1. Verbal counseling – a conversation between manager and employee. This is used to orally notify an employee he has violated a rule or failed to meet expectations. The manager should maintain written documentation of the event.
  2. Written warning – a written warning provides notice to an employee regarding continued work performance issues after a verbal counseling. For example, a manager verbally counsels the employee regarding the “call in” procedure, but a few days later the employee again fails to use the proper procedure and misses work. The manager should maintain a record of the written warning. Employers may issue one or more written warnings.
  3. Performance improvement plan (sometimes called a PIP) – after verbal and written warnings, a PIP is a formal written plan that can be used by the manager as a final attempt to resolve a serious issue that has not been addressed by the employee. A PIP is usually written for a specified period of time and should include information about the issue, including a prior verbal or written warnings, the work performance issue to be addressed and corrected during the PIP period, and the dates on which the employee’s performance will be reviewed. As with all employment documents, the manager should retain a written record of the PIP in the employee’s files.  
  4. Termination – this is obviously the last step if the employee fails to meet the PIP requirements or commits a serious violation during the PIP period. Termination may also be appropriate at any time if an employee commits a major offense, even if not on a PIP. For example, an employee caught stealing may be subject to immediate termination regardless of a PIP.

This type of progressive plan can be altered to accommodate for the size and culture of the company. There are pros and cons to a progressive discipline policy. The pros include providing a clear explanation of the consequences for violating rules or not meeting expectations. Such a policy provides the opportunity for an employee to fix her behavior. The cons include the time and effort required. If proper precautions are not taken, some fear a progressive discipline policy could jeopardize an “at will” employment relationship. To avoid this, a policy should make clear termination can occur at any time for a serious violation and the relationship is an “at will” arrangement.

An employment discipline policy should be tailored to a company’s size, goals, and culture. Contact your attorney for more advice.