Terminating an Employee Without Warning; When to Skip Progressive Discipline

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Progressive discipline usually looks like this: an employer first issues a verbal warning to an employee displaying misconduct, then issues a written warning if problems continue, a final warning if misconduct continues thereafter, and finally termination. Progressive discipline is beneficial because it demonstrates employers treat employees fairly and gives chances for employees to change. A system of progressive discipline also tends to be resilient against discrimination and retaliation claims.

In some cases, though, termination just can’t wait that long.

Delaying termination can have disastrous consequences for an employer. If, for instance, an employer learns of an employee driving on the job while intoxicated, follows up with a verbal warning, and then the employee—driving again while intoxicated despite the warning—gets into a car accident involving other people, the employer will probably be found liable for not taking more aggressive action.

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Not all cases are as clear-cut, however. It can be tricky for employers to find the line between when progressive discipline is advisable and when it is not. To help, we’ve compiled a list of reasons below that may warrant the employer to skip progressive discipline and opt for a stricter stance.

Reasons to Skip Progressive Discipline:

  1. Serious insubordination, such as refusal to carry out job duties.
  2. Fighting or assault.
  3. Theft.
  4. Dishonesty, especially over recordkeeping.
  5. Intentional destruction of property.
  6. Use of drugs or alcohol while working.
  7. Sexual misconduct.
  8. Criminal activity at work.
  9. Any behavior that threatens the safety of others.

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The list above does not contain all reasons for an employer to skip progressive discipline, but it is a good place to start. All cases have their own details, so more attention to nuance may be required. This is particularly true when addressing arrests outside of work.

An employee can only be suspended or terminated for an arrest outside of work if the arrest was for reasons relevant to their job. Otherwise, if an employer has reason to believe that progressive discipline would not lead to an employee’s rehabilitation, then termination might be in order.

In cases of extreme poor performance, where an employer is certain the employee will not respond to coaching, training or mentoring, skipping progressive discipline and going straight to termination may be the best move. Especially in a smaller company where every worker’s performance matters even more. In these situations, the employer would be wise to document an employee’s poor performance in the event the terminated employee decides to sue.

To help prevent escalation of any legal action when it comes to terminating employees, remember your organization’s employee handbook is your best friend. Be sure to clearly state any and all possible actions that may be grounds for immediate termination, review the handbook with new hires and have them sign a document acknowledging the handbook has been reviewed with them and they understand it your business’ policies.

announcing employee departures at your business

When small businesses outsource HR to a PEO, the business owner gains back 40 percent of their time.

Sherri Bennett

Written by Sherri Bennett