Opinions vary widely on how explicitly to articulate discipline policy. As a general rule, employers can protect themselves by giving employees a warning and a chance to reform their behavior before firing them. (After all, it's harder to complain convincingly if you were warned that the conduct violated company policy.)
- The Common Mistake Many companies make the mistake of putting a formal "progressive discipline" policy in writing: A first infraction gets a verbal warning; the next one gets a written warning; the next, perhaps a brief suspension; and only then termination. The problem is that codifying that process "can obligate you to do things that you don't always want to do," says Fred Holloway, an HR consultant in Medford, Oregon. You might want to cut a trusted, longstanding employee some slack even after a flagrant infraction, for example, or immediately fire an underperformer for a relatively minor one. And formal progressive discipline policies can undercut your "at-will" status in the eyes of a court.
- The Better Option Instead, Galbreath suggests writing a policy that focuses on encouraging positive behaviors and avoids threats. Begin by articulating the expectation that employees will practice self-discipline and meet performance goals. Then explain that, in the unlikely event that an employee fails to meet those standards, the organization will provide the coaching, counseling, and, in some cases, discipline necessary to assist the employee. This sort of language, says Galbreath, "tells employees that your goal is to help them succeed, not fire them." As always, the tradeoff for this flexibility is a potentially weaker defense in the courtroom when you are contesting discrimination or wrongful termination suits. Your feel for your corporate culture will determine whether it's a tradeoff worth making.