We previously discussed that employee discipline should be approached as a systematic way for both managers and employees to work together in achieving goals and overcoming problems. But for a system to work, it needs to be documented and followed consistently by employees and managers alike.

Employee discipline can take many forms and may range from mild actions, such as coaching, to more serious ones, such as verbal or written warnings. But it all starts with fair expectations, a documented process and consistent communication.

Create clear, consistent rules. Spell out all of your company policies from dress code to acceptable behavior to productivity goals in an employee handbook to make your expectations known.

Practice consistent enforcement. Make sure managers address all infractions immediately and consistently so everyone is treated the same way. Otherwise, you could be guilty of unequal or biased treatment which could work against you if a terminated employee files a complaint. Ninety (90%) of managers say they should have started employee discipline sooner than they did.

Establish a progressive discipline process. When an employee isn’t meeting performance goals or breaks a policy, it’s important to take action right away. Ignoring a violation could be seen as biased by other employees or lead the employee to believe the action isn’t a problem. Your process for handling disciplinary issues might include:

Progressive discipline. Using this process, you increase the level of your response when an employee doesn’t correct an issue. You might start with a verbal warning in which you tell the employee specifically what rule or expectation was broken and what the concern with it is. If the violation happens again, provide a written warning. Ask for a correction to the behavior by a specific time. If after one or more written warnings, you don’t see improvement, you may put the employee on probation or suspension or move to termination. Documenting the steps you take to correct a problem protects you and gives the employee clear direction about what you expect.

Performance improvement plan (PIP). Use this method when an employee’s performance or actions are not meeting expectations. Use the PIP to outline specific next steps, measurable goals and check points to help the employee improve performance in specific areas.

Keep in mind that similar behaviors must be treated consistently. If you give one employee a verbal warning for being late, you must do the same for all employees. Additionally, it’s important to note that serious offenses (such as stealing or threatening violence) justify immediate termination.

Give verbal warnings. Even though you give a verbal warning, make sure you document the date and specifics behind the infraction. Keep a record of each time you give an employee a verbal warning or discuss improvements needed. With good documentation of an employee’s pattern of poor performance and steps you took to address it, you can establish that termination wasn’t related to discrimination based on race, sex, age, religion, disability, or national origin.

Provide written warnings. After speaking to your employee about any behavior or performance issues that violate your policies, you should move on to written warnings. Recap past verbal warnings; state why the issue is a problem and include a date by which you expect to see improvement.

Handling remote workers. Many companies have a portion or all employees working remotely now. Do you still follow the same rules for discipline as you did at the office or work site. Absolutely! Just because you might have employees working remotely doesn’t mean that they get a pass for work related issues. Remember, consistency is the key here to ensure you stay out of legal trouble.