The Ickiness of “Progressive Discipline”


Like so many well-intentioned HR professionals, I’m schooled in the steps of what’s called “progressive discipline”: verbal warning, written
warning, suspension/demotion, and termination.

That system (and even the word “discipline”) of treating employees like wayward robots who need to be set straight feels pretty icky to me, and it always has. That method comes from a perceived need to protect a company from litigation (reactive), not from a place of truly wanting to lift the organization up (proactive).

When I’ve written warnings or termination letters for employees, I’ve had to hit “pause” on the part of me that is compassionate and humane. Most employees don’t sue their employers, and yet, we design policies tailored to the few who may want to take action against an organization.

Why do we think we have the right to “discipline” grown adults who are giving us the gifts of their time and expertise in the first place?

Have you ever been “disciplined” by your employer?

Did it make you want to thrive and do your best work? Probably not. People do well when they have ownership over their work and are encouraged to bring their best selves forward.

If an organization feels like it has to warn and suspend its employees, that’s probably because it’s either a) not making an effort to hire grown adults who can manage a job, and/or b) too afraid to loosen the reins of control.

Running an organization like a branch of the military won’t keep litigation costs down, and it won’t solicit the best from the humans who make it run.

The patronizing employer-employee relationship of the past needs to be set aside. It’s time for organizational leaders to wake up to a workforce that wants to be treated like the complex, capable adults they are.

4 thoughts on “The Ickiness of “Progressive Discipline”

  1. Omg I was just thinking about this the other day- my boss bought us pricey pastries to celebrate hitting a project milestone & I thought to myself how nice it felt to be unexpectedly rewarded for doing great work. And how rare it is to be managed proactively, rather than reprimanded for the things that aren’t going well. I find myself working harder & better bc I know it will be noticed.


    1. @knrbnr – I’m glad to hear that! It makes such a difference when our efforts are recognized and valued 🙂


  2. I recall at a past organization they employed a system known as, “Personal Improvement Plan”, or “PIP”, for underperformers. No one actually emerged from a PIP. It was the last step before they fired the individual. The moment you heard that so-and-so got a PIP, you knew the person would be gone in 90 days.


    1. David – Yes, “PIPs” are another unfortunate way that this happens in organizations! It’s so sad when there’s no actual improvement intended. -M


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