Dealing With Problem Employees: The Basics of Progressive Discipline

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You never want to fire anyone. As a business owner with managerial accountabilities — directly supervising employees or overseeing a manager in charge — you want to lead, develop, and empower people.

Ideally, keep interactions positive and instructive, conveying expectations, educating on policies, explaining nuances of the business, and modeling appropriate interactions with customers and vendors. Encourage employees to ask questions if they are unsure about how to handle certain scenarios or conflicted about daily priorities. Acknowledge that they have valuable professional insights that can contribute to the growth and profitability of the business along with personal lives that demand attention and nurturing outside of working hours.

No matter how clearly you state position requirements, performance standards, and company policies…how many times you encourage employees to bring issues to your attention…how much you empathize…troubles with employees happen.

Given the choice to safeguard the future of your company or protect the needs of a problem employee, you'll choose your business. Common troubles include:

  • subpar job performance
  • attendance problems
  • violation of company policies
  • illegal actions


Know your rights and obligations as an employer.

Get an understanding of how employment-at-will concepts are interpreted and applied in your state. You may be able to terminate an employee without cause just as an employee can leave for any reason with no fear of recourse on either side, if no contract exists. Dig deeper to grasp when employment-at-will doesn't apply, such as when an employee has filed a workers' compensation claim, when patterns of discriminatory practices emerge, or when a contract of employment is implied through promises of continued employment.

Engage legal counsel or a human resources professional with expertise in employment law to design policies and be available for consultation on specific problems.


If you sense trouble or hear about the possibility of recurring policy violations, find a way to witness questionable activity. Don't rely on reports from third parties, such as fellow employees who may have a limited perspective. Consider information provided to you, but don't feel guilty for not noticing yourself; instead, commit to paying closer attention to your team.

Talk with your employees about obstacles to achieving business goals, dealing with difficult customers, addressing system snafus, and more. Get ideas on how problems may have occurred, which may stem from misunderstandings, unusual scenarios, or extreme personal difficulties. Gather intelligence and give straightforward direction to employees.

If personal concerns interfere with job performance (a relationship crisis leads to excessive time making non-work-related calls or a chronically ill family member results in consistent tardiness), show empathy. Don't take ownership of the problem but make suggestions about ways to address problems or refer to your company's EAP (employee assistance program).


If problems persist, counsel employees using a progressive discipline approach and document all communications. Conduct a counseling session in which you:

  • Specify the problem.
  • Remind the employee about company requirements.
  • Communicate clearly the behaviors or results that you expect in the future.

Follow up with employees to make sure that changes have occurred according to your stated expectations. If they haven't, elevate the seriousness of the infraction or performance failure in progressive steps, starting with a face-to-face warning. Move to a written warning that requires the employee's signature indicating that he or she understands the actions necessary to remedy the problem or face termination from the company. Be prepared to provide the employee with a copy of the warning. Conclude the session by asking the employee if there is any point of confusion and providing clarification if needed.

Initially, the employee may rationalize actions or argue that there are gray areas in interpretation of performance standards, policy compliance, etc. Listen, but keep the mission of your business in the forefront, reminding your employee of job responsibilities.

Make the Break

Occasionally, the employees who aren't performing up to standard or missing too much work may come to the realization that they aren't a good fit for the company or they need an extended amount of time away from the workplace to take care of personal matters. Your counseling sessions may prompt these revelations and the employees may leave the company voluntarily.

Just as often, though, the employee stays and continues to cause problems for your business. If the disciplinary actions don't yield the behaviors or results specified, then you'll need to fire the employee. Don't question your judgment. If the problem is real to you, then its significance is magnified to the rest of your employees.

Pick the right time and setting to let the employee know that you're terminating his or her employment. If possible, arrange for a trusted leader with your company to attend this session to prevent questions about your conversation later. End the employee/employer relationship immediately. Unless there are security risks, allow the employee to gather personal effects and exit gracefully. You might choose a time when coworkers are off site to ease this transition. Make arrangements to disable access to business facilities and computer networks as soon as possible.

Serious problems — threats of violence or drug use, for example — should mean immediate termination; having a game plan for such situations is advisable though quick action is the best solution, especially in an employment-at-will environment.

Stay Positive

As a reasonable and empathetic business owner, you might be concerned about the negative impact of an employee termination. You may be surprised to find that your best employees are pleased that you've protected the business and the viability of their collective futures. Keeping an unproductive employee who doesn't follow the rules can detract from employee morale as well as hold down sales, service, and profits. Don't reveal details of your conversations with the fired employee. Show that communications with you are confidential and you can be trusted even in difficult circumstances.

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