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Options for Handling Performance Issues

19 January, 2016 - 15:28

Our last phase of dealing with employee problems would be a disciplinary intervention. Often this is called the progressive discipline process. It refers to a series of steps taking corrective action on nonperformance issues. The progressive discipline process is useful if the offense is not serious and does not demand immediate dismissal, such as employee theft. The progressive discipline process should be documented and applied to all employees committing the same offenses. The steps in progressive discipline normally are the following:

  1. First offense: Unofficial verbal warning. Counseling and restatement of expectations.
  2. Second offense: Official written warning, documented in employee file.
  3. Third offense: Second official warning. Improvement plan (discussed later) may be developed. Documented in employee file.
  4. Fourth offense: Possible suspension or other punishment, documented in employee file.
  5. Fifth offense: Termination and/or alternative dispute resolution.

University of Iowa’s Progressive Discipline Process

The chart below shows the typical progressive discipline process at the University of Iowa:


The Seven Tests of Just Cause 1
The seven test[s] of just cause represent a practical and effective way to determine whether a proposed disciplinary action is firmly and fairly grounded. It is fair to assume that these tests will be applied by arbitrators in the event that disciplinary actions are challenged, and it is therefore good practice to apply them prospectively when considering the imposition of progressive discipline.
Seven tests:
  1. Notice
    • Prior to imposition of discipline, employee must have notice of rules and expectations.
    • Establish through:
      • New employee orientation
      • Orientation checklists
      • Receipts for departmental handbooks
    • Periodic reinforcement/coaching
  2. Reasonable Rules and Orders
    • Cannot be inconsistent with collective bargaining agreement(s)
    • Cannot be arbitrary or capricious
    • Must be reasonably related to business necessity
  3. Investigation
    • Must be thorough; consider all evidence, pro and con.
    • Must be timely:
      • Should be completed expeditiously
      • Occurs before discipline imposed
    • Give accused opportunity to respond (Loudermill hearing).
    • Allow union representation (Weingarten rights).
  4. Fair Investigation
    • Result must not be forgone conclusion.
    • Test assumptions/bias.
  5. Proof
    • Level of proof is normally substantial evidence.
    • Greater proof required for more serious allegations.
  6. Equal Treatment
    ​Equal treatment must be balanced against just application:
    • Rules must be applied even-handedly and without discrimination.
    • Rules must be applied justly.
    • Don’t blindly apply the same rule to all situations—managers/supervisors are expected to exercise judgment.
  7. Penalty
    • Must be fair, not arbitrary and capricious, or based on emotional response.
    • Factor in length of service, prior performance history, and previous progressive discipline.

Another option for handling continued infractions is to consider putting the employee on an improvement plan, which outlines the expectations and steps the employee should take to improve performance. We address this in greater detail in Employee Assessment . The plan is detailed and outlined and ensures both parties understand the specific expectations for improvement. If the improvement plan does not work, a progressive discipline process might be used.

Whichever direction is taken with disciplining of the employee, documentation is key throughout the process to avoid wrongful termination issues.

Figure 10.2 Sample of a Performance Improvement Plan