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An HR Glossary for HR Terms

Glossary of Human Resources Management and Employee Benefit Terms

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Disciplinary Action

What Is the Definition of a Disciplinary Action?

A disciplinary action is a reprimand or corrective action in response to employee misconduct, rule violation, or poor performance. Depending on the severity of the case, a disciplinary action can take different forms, including:

  • A verbal warning

  • A written warning

  • A poor performance review or evaluation

  • A performance improvement plan 

  • A reduction in rank or pay

  • Termination

What Types of Behavior Qualify for Disciplinary Action?

This will largely depend on the employer and the type of business they run. A bank, for example, will have much stricter rules of conduct for interacting with customers, discussing and sharing customer information, or even dress code. A more casual business with less interaction with customers, like a trucking company, will care more about how their employees adhere to road laws than if they wear a suit to work.

There are certain instances, however, that should always result in disciplinary action because of the egregious nature of the misconduct. These include:

  • Threats or acts of violence, especially if against employees or customers

  • Sexual harassment or assault, especially in the workplace

  • Fraud, including unauthorized use and misappropriation of funds

  • Theft

  • Discrimination

Whether these behaviors result in disciplinary action or you decide to implement a zero-tolerance policy, it’s vital to have a written policy to deal with such occurrences. They not only put your organization at risk, but they also endanger the safety of your employees and customers. 

How Should Employers Codify Rules of Behavior for Disciplinary Action?

For disciplinary actions to be fair and effective, employers need to make their expectations clear. Employees should know up front what behavior is acceptable, how they are expected to perform, and what measures will be taken if they don’t fulfill their employer’s expectations. 

Here are some ways you can make your expectations clear to your employees:

  • Write detailed job descriptions. If applicants know before they even start what the job entails, they will be able to better gauge if they are a good fit and so will you.

  • Establish an employer brand. This will help candidates to get a feel for the organization and its culture as a whole, whether that’s through an online presence or word-of-mouth. 

  • Have an employee handbook that includes a code of conduct. A good employee handbook acts like a guide to your organization for new hires, informing them of your core values and mission, their rights and obligations, HR policies, and more. Part of that should be the day-to-day rules of behavior in the workplace, e.g., the dress code, communication standards, rules for sharing the kitchen, etc.

  • Provide anti-harassment, anti-discrimination, and workplace conflict resolution training. Not all disciplinary action will result from issues between employees, but you should give employees resources and coping skills to reduce friction. You especially need to make expectations crystal clear when it comes to harassment and discrimination, since these can lead to legal action against your organization and cause serious harm to employees.

  • Shorten performance review cycles, and encourage frequent one-on-ones between managers and employees. The traditional annual review cycle puts too much pressure on managers and employees to remember everything good they’ve done and everything that needs to be improved. Meeting more often helps managers give feedback in the moment and prevent small mistakes from developing into big problems.

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