Organizational Wellness

Disciplinary Actions in the Workplace: Definition and Examples

Mar 24, 2023
Last Updated May 8, 2024

When a player commits a penalty in a hockey game, like tripping their opponent, they’re called for a minor penalty and the opposing team is given an advantage for two minutes. But if they do something especially egregious — like checking to the head — they could be given a five- or ten-minute penalty or get thrown out of the game.

At your own organization, it’s normal to follow a similar approach to discipline. Some employee actions might be fireable offenses, but there are steps you can take first to address misconduct or poor performance.

And although you probably wouldn’t fire someone the first time they show up late to work, it’s still important to hand out fair and effective consequences, especially for higher degrees of misconduct. Assessing the right disciplinary actions depending on the behavior can help you correct employee behavior and create a safer workplace dynamic for everyone.


What are Disciplinary Actions?

Disciplinary actions are measures taken to enforce compliance with company rules and regulations, address misconduct, or improve employee performance. They range from verbal warnings and written reprimands to suspension or dismissal. Disciplinary actions are typically based on the severity of the offense, although leniency is sometimes offered in cases where an employee has made a genuine effort to change their behavior.

Although the name implies that discipline is being dished out, disciplinary actions are not just punishments. They’re corrective actions that are meant to help employees recognize when their behavior needs to change and adjust their actions to contribute to a healthy work environment.

For first-time offenders, a disciplinary action can serve as a notice that their behavior won’t be tolerated by the company so that they take steps to address it themselves. For repeat offenders, increasingly severe employee disciplinary actions, known as progressive discipline, might be necessary to finally curb the unacceptable behavior.

Five Examples of Disciplinary Actions

The type of disciplinary action you choose should match the context and severity of the employee’s behavior. Here’s a closer look at some examples:

  1. Verbal Warning

A verbal warning is a conversation, usually between the employee and their manager or an HR representative, that informs the worker that their behavior isn’t acceptable. It’s typically the first measure taken to address an employee’s misconduct, and in some cases, it’s enough to get them back on the right track. But a verbal warning should still be documented as part of the disciplinary process.

  1. Written Warning

This is similar to a verbal warning, except it’s documented in writing and signed by the employee. A written reprimand usually includes details about the desired behavior change, potential consequences if the employee doesn’t comply, and a timeline for when changes should be implemented. It can also cite the relevant company policy, as well as the number of times the employee has been warned before, like in this sample template from the Society for Human Resource Management.

  1. Suspension

A suspension is a leave of absence during which the employee ceases to work but still maintains their position with the company. Employees are sometimes suspended while an HR investigation into misconduct or alleged violations of company policy takes place. Durham Technical Community College’s disciplinary policy, for example, outlines that employees will be placed on administrative leave while they’re being investigated for violating College policies and procedures. A suspension can be either paid or unpaid, with an unpaid suspension serving as a more severe form of employee discipline.

  1. Demotion

A demotion is a type of employee disciplinary action that involves reducing an employee’s title, salary, and responsibilities within the organization. It can be used both to address poor performance or unacceptable behavior when other forms of discipline have failed. Paycor, the HR & payroll solution software, offers this example of a demotion letter, where companies can plug in specific violations, cite performance issues, or give other reasons for the change.

  1. Termination

Termination is the most serious form of disciplinary action, typically reserved for cases involving a violation of company policy or extreme misconduct. It’s a permanent form of discipline that can’t be reversed, so employers should take great care to make sure the action is appropriate and justified. Terminating an employee for cause is different than laying them off or terminating without cause. But if you’ve followed your progressive disciplinary policy without seeing any improvements, this may be the best step to take for the company.

When Should You Apply Your Disciplinary Action Policy?

Your own policy should be tailored to your company needs and industry, but establishing a clear and effective policy from the get-go will help you understand when to dish out disciplinary actions. Recruiting software company Workable offers a policy template here for you to try if you don’t already have one documented.

You can codify your policy in the employee handbook for transparency and spell out which behaviors and violations will face consequences. These are just some examples of misconduct that would fall under a disciplinary action policy:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Theft or fraud
  • Insubordination
  • Substance abuse
  • Violence or threats of violence
  • Unauthorized use of company equipment
  • Repeated tardiness or absenteeism

No matter what kind of disciplinary action you need to implement, make sure it’s fair and that it protects all of your employees. Employee rights include a workplace free from harassment and discrimination, so it’s important that you’re levying out effective consequences for those violations through an anti-harassment policy.

Your line of work might also determine how lenient or strict you can be with certain behaviors. A finance or consulting company might be totally fine with employees taking clients out for a drink. A manufacturing company focused on safety and operations, on the other hand, might have a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol in the workplace.

Implement Policies and Programs that Foster a Supportive and Inclusive Culture

A disciplinary action policy is just one tool in your arsenal to promote a healthy workplace, as they can prevent harmful and toxic behaviors from spreading. 

And while it’s important to have those actions documented, it’s just as important for your HR team and management to follow through on the outlined disciplinary procedures. If the policy says you’ll retain a record of a written notice, for example, keep that on hand in the employee’s personnel file. Sticking to the policy and issuing consequences is the only way to build trust and transparency among your workforce.

It’s not all about discipline and punishment, however. There are plenty of other ways to create an engaging and inclusive work environment — such as recognizing team members for their positive contributions, offering great perks and benefits, and offering a comprehensive wellness program

Speak to one of our Wellbeing Specialists today to find out more about how to tailor a wellness package to support a positive work culture at your organization!

Company healthcare costs drop by up to 35% with Wellhub! (* Based on proprietary research comparing healthcare costs of active Wellhub users to non-users.) Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist to see how we can help reduce your healthcare spending!



Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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