Employee Discipline

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Discipline refers to the actions imposed by an organization on its employees for failure to follow the organization's rules, standards, or policies. Traditional approaches to discipline, based on punishment, are known to promote adversarial relationships between leaders and followers. A more effective approach now being used by many companies recognizes good performance and encourages employee commitment to the organization and its goals. Once employees see the discrepancy between actual and expected performance, the burden is on the employee to change. Even with more positive approaches to discipline, organizations still need to have some form of disciplinary procedure, whether formal or informal, that carries successively stiffer penalties for repeated or more serious offenses.


A first step in the disciplinary procedure is to establish work rules that are in line with the organization's goals or objectives. These work rules become the basis for disciplinary actions when the rules are broken. They are generally established jointly by management, the organization's human resources unit, and employees, who should have an opportunity for input to ensure that rules are fair and can reasonably be followed. Work rules are directly related to work behavior and productivity. Employees who continually violate the rules are candidates for a disciplinary procedure.

Employees must know the rules that have been established. Even though employees might have had input in the development of the rules, it is the employer who creates the final version. The organization's work rules should be presented in a printed format, and each employee should be given a copy. This is usually accomplished in the form of an employee handbook. The handbook may have other information, but the work rules are a critical part of it.

In some organizations, these work rules are discussed at meetings, seminars, or training sessions. Employees with long tenure in the organization typically review the rules periodically. Work rules should be reviewed from time to time and, if necessary, revised. If an organization makes major changes in the way it operates because of new equipment, expansion or contraction, or new ownership, it will need to revise its work rules accordingly. Small companies with only a few employees also need to have written work rules. Such companies may not have an employee handbook, but it is still wise for the rules to be written and presented to each employee. Additionally, these rules may be posted in a spot where all employees can read them easily.


In the employee evaluation process, either formal or informal, behaviors requiring disciplinary actions are often revealed. Informal evaluation might occur at all times as supervisors monitor employees. Formal evaluations of each employee should be completed regularly so that deficiencies can be discovered and discussed with the employee. When employees violate work rules, a change of behavior is sought. Although small companies with only a few employees may not use a formal written evaluation, it is still important that employees be evaluated regularly. Small companies may find it easier to take corrective actions than large companies because of the closeness of the supervisor to each of the work situations. In contrast, a supervisor in a large organization might be responsible for from fifty to one hundred or more workers.

When employees break the rules of the organization, they often need assistance to change their behavior so as to operate within the established parameters. Counseling and coaching could be a part of this process, but they usually take place prior to disciplinary actions. If employees change their behavior as a result of disciplinary actions and conform to the established work rules, there is no need for further discipline. If a change in behavior does not occur, then a harsher disciplinary procedure will need to be implemented.

The need to resort to disciplinary procedures may be lessened by (1) smart hiring, using background checks and extensive interviews; (2) performance evaluations with clear goals and objectives; (3) training and development to improve skills and increase performance; and (4) rewarding performance and goal achievement.


Although most employees do follow the organization's rules and regulations, there are times when the employer must use the discipline procedure. Frequent reasons for using the procedure include the following:

Absence from work


Abusing customers

Abusive language toward supervisor

Assault and fighting among employees

Causing unsafe working conditions

Damage to or loss of machinery or materials


Disloyalty to employer (includes competing with employer, conflict of interest)

Falsifying company records (including time records, production records)

Falsifying employment application



Incompetence (including low productivity)


Leaving place of work (including quitting early)


Misconduct during a strike


Obscene or immoral conduct

Participation in a prohibited strike

Possession or use of drugs or intoxicants

Profane or abusive language (not toward supervisor)

Refusal to accept a job assignment

Refusal to work overtime

Sleeping on the job




Threat to or assault of management representative

A formal disciplinary procedure usually begins with an oral warning and progresses through a written warning, suspension, and, ultimately, discharge. Formal disciplinary procedures also outline the penalty for each successive offense and define time limits for maintaining records of each offense and penalty. For instance, tardiness records might be maintained for only a six-month period. Tardiness prior to the six months preceding the offense would not be considered in the disciplinary action. Less formal procedures generally specify the reasons for disciplinary action as being for just or proper cause.

Preventing the disciplinary procedure from progressing beyond the oral warning stage is obviously advantageous to both the employee and management. Discipline should be aimed at correction rather than punishment. If the behavior can be corrected by a friendly talk between the supervisor and the employee, there is less chance that the problem will become a source of bitterness. Formal oral or written warnings are less likely to cause animosity than would a suspension. Of course, the most costly and least acceptable form of discipline is discharge. Disciplinary procedures should be viewed as a means of encouraging employees to abide willingly by the rules and standards of the organization.

The importance of having a procedurally correct performance evaluation system receives constant emphasis. There is a need to adopt procedural due process for performance evaluation systems in order to rate employee job performance accurately because those ratings might be challenged. Legal problems regarding employee disciplinary measures can be prevented by making sure that these measures follow prescribed guidelines, such as:

  • Employees are given advance notice of disciplinary action.
  • Disciplinary rules are reasonable.
  • Offenses are properly investigated.
  • Investigations are conducted objectively.
  • Rules are enforced equally.
  • Penalties are related to the severity of offenses.


Numerous employees in the United States are represented by labor unions. In a unionized organization, the supervisor is the primary link between the organization and union members. The supervisor's first responsibility is to uphold the interests of management. At the same time, the supervisor must fulfill the contractual obligations of management and see that the union fulfills its obligations. Collective bargaining between management and the union determines terms of worker contracts, legal documents that cover a specified period of time. Union contracts include provisions for a worker grievance and disciplinary procedures. For example, the union contract may stipulate that an employee can be disciplined for just cause. To fulfill this provision, management must develop a system of discipline that supervisors must follow.


A disciplinary procedure is directed against the worker's behavior rather than the person. Key features of an effective process include the following principles of disciplining workers.

  1. The length of time between the misconduct and the discipline should be short. For discipline to be most effective, it must be administered as soon as possible, but without making an emotional, irrational decision.
  2. Disciplinary action should be preceded by advance warning. Noting rule infractions in an employee's record is not sufficient to support disciplinary action. An employee who is not advised of an infraction is not considered to have been given a warning. Noting that the employee was advised of the infraction and having the employee sign a discipline form are both valid employment practices. Failure to warn an employee of the consequences of repeated violations of a rule is a frequently cited reason for overturning a disciplinary action.
  3. Consistency in the discipline procedure is key. Inconsistency lowers morale, diminishes respect for the supervisor, and leads to grievances. Consistency does not mean that an absence of past infractions, long length of service, a good work record, and other mitigating factors should not be considered when applying discipline. However, an employee should feel that under essentially the same circumstances any other employee would have received the same punishment/penalty.
  4. Supervisors should take steps to ensure impartiality when applying discipline. The employee should feel that the disciplinary action is a consequence of behavior, not of personality or relationship to the supervisor. The supervisor should avoid arguing with the employee and should administer discipline in a straightforward, calm manner. Administering discipline without anger or apology and then resuming a pleasant relationship aid in reducing the negative effects of discipline.
  5. Ordinarily, the supervisor should administer discipline in private. Only in the case of gross insubordination or flagrant and serious rule violations is a public reprimand desirable. Then a public reprimand helps the supervisor regain control of a situation. Even in such situations, however, the supervisor's objective should be to regain control, not to embarrass the employee.
  6. The supervisor should warn the employee of the result of repeated violations. Sometimes suggestions to the employee on ways to correct behavior are beneficial. Supervisors should be very reluctant to impose disciplinary suspensions and to discharge workers. Usually, discipline of this degree is reserved for higher levels of management. However, even though supervisors usually lack the power to administer disciplinary suspensions or to discharge workers, they are nearly always the ones who must recommend such action to higher management.
  7. Finally, it is necessary to document the action taken and inform others in the organization. Any time an organization takes disciplinary action, it must consider the possibility of an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint. The documentation should be sufficiently detailed that another manager at a similar level in the organization would come to the same conclusions or least see clearly why the decision was made. Sufficient documentation does not mean that every detail of an individual's work needs to be recorded. Rather, the manager should keep accurate records of those elements that significantly contribute to or hamper the work effort. In addition, this information, both positive and negative, should be communicated to the employee either orally or in writing.


If a company is to have a successful employee disciplinary procedure, both the organization and the manager have important roles to play. In practice, companies assume the responsibility of establishing rules, communicating them to employees, and developing a penalty system for enforcing them. The manager's role in the disciplinary procedure is distinct from that of the organization, yet the two overlap and support each other. Managers are responsible for implementing the organization's discipline procedure. This requires them to do several things: They must compare their organization's rules with employee behavior to determine whether a rule has been broken; they must determine whether they have sufficient proof that the employee did indeed break the rule; they must decide what corrective action should be taken and then take it; and they must document whatever action is taken. To the extent that all managers perform these steps effectively, the disciplinary procedure will be effective and there is a very good chance that employee behavior on the job can be significantly improved.

see also Motivation


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Champagne, Paul J., and McAfee, R. Bruce (1989). Motivating Strategies for Performance and Productivity. New York: Quorum Books.

Greenberg, Jerald (1999). Managing Behavior in Organizations: Science in Service to Practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Hersey, Paul, Blanchard, Kenneth H., and Johnson, Dewey E. (2001). Management of Organizational Behavior. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Rue, Leslie W., and Byars, Lloyd L. (2004). Supervision: Key Link to Productivity. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Whetten, David A., and Cameron, Kim S. (2005). Developing Management Skills. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

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Yukl, Gary (2005). Leadership in Organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice-Hall.

Marcia Anderson

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Employee Discipline

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