Alternatives to Disciplining Employees

Alan Melton

If you have employees, there will be a need to handle problematic behaviors or performance – like tardiness, incomplete work, or a bad attitude.

For many business owners and managers, addressing those problems is often their most uncomfortable and cumbersome task. Not only can progressive discipline be awkward, but also it can involve substantial planning, paperwork, and politics.

Realistically, employees (or any member of staff such as consultants and temps) are human and, therefore, prone to making mistakes and missteps. Developing a proper approach to handling these kinds of problems should be done with consideration toward the best interests of the company, the employee and, in the end, your customers.

Does a disciplinary approach work for or against you?

Progressive discipline generally starts with a verbal reproach, is followed by a written warning, and ends with termination. Companies commonly use this approach to document discipline issues and to protect them in legal matters (like lawsuits and unemployment claims).

Unfortunately, this approach to handling a performance problem has detrimental aspects:

  • Often results in only temporary changes in behavior or performance
  • Can cause additional problems in the employee’s (and other staff members’) morale and attitude
  • Serves only to punish, not to correct disciplinary problems
  • May led to the exit of a valuable employee in whom the company has invested time, money, and resources

An Alternative to Disciplining Employees

A more conscientious alternative to handling a disciplinary issue is the “progressive coaching” approach – which involves communication and education to find a solution.  This more cooperative method:

  • Resolves, not just documents, poor behavior or performance
  • Builds mutual respect and appreciation
  • Proves the company’s commitment to its staff
  • Improves morale and work environment

What is progressive coaching?

This method involves providing communication, advice, and guidance to the offending employee. Together, your employee and management can collaborate on a solution that establishes realistic ways to work out a problem. Benefits are:

  • Offers coaching and encouragement rather than punishment
  • Provides options for your employee to improve their performance or change behavioral issues
  • Avoids the stress, tension, anger, and awkwardness around a merely punitive approach
  • Shows employees that they’re considered part of the company’s success
  • It helps to retain employees who are trained, knowledgeable, and have been an asset to the company.

Steps for progressive coaching

There may be no set-in-stone procedure, but the following recommended steps provide a framework for progressively coaching an employee toward growth and improvement.

Notify the Employee

Set up a meeting between yourself and the employee. Choose a neutral space like a conference room or a nearby coffee shop. Tell them the agenda is about opportunities for improvement in the execution of their job.

Prepare Yourself for the Interview

Before the meeting, first, consider the disciplinary problem and its severity and effects. What people, activities, and end results suffer due to poor performance or behavior? Is this a new or repeated offense?

Brainstorm the ways that the employee can modify their actions to meet expectations. Detail those recommendations on paper, such as:

  • Training (ex. on tools, behavior, systems, processes)
  • Meeting one-on-one with a coach
  • Developing tasks for performance improvement
  • Assigning a mentor
  • Setting specific goals
  • Reducing or changing employee’s responsibilities

If desired, jot down possible triggers that led to disciplinary issues. Ask yourself if there are internal situations or people who might be causing the problem? Have there been signs that they’re unhappy with their current position?

Write down probing questions that may bring out any company or department issues, personnel problems, or process struggles.

Use these considerations to start a conversation about their possible connection to the infractions.

Have a Conversation

You can begin by expressing how their contributions and conduct can have a positive or negative effort on the work environment, and how they do their job can affect the success of the business.

Explain that the company appreciates each employee and so uses a progressive coaching approach to help employees improve when issues in performance or behavior occur. 

Start With the Positive

Let them know they’re valued for things like their skills, knowledge, contributions, and time with the company. You can specifically articulate examples.

Clearly, state the performance or behavior issue that you are addressing.

Describe the initial process for progressive coaching.

  • Specific tasks or goals will be assigned (and tracked) to mitigate or improve the employee’s performance or behavior.
  • A designated person will provide mentoring, training, or coaching.
  • Assigned coaching, training, tasks, and goals will be tracked and later assessed for progress and compliance.

Ask and Listen

Take opportunities that allow input or feedback from the employee.

This could be the right time to ask if they’re encountering any company policies or department-centered problems that led to the infraction (ex. bank employees opening unauthorized credit card accounts in order to meet highly unrealistic sales goals).

If needed, you can ask the employee to respond to the allegation. There may be circumstances that mitigate the offense such as misinterpretations or misunderstandings. If their testimony merits it, tell them you’ll look into it. Still, though, continue on with the meeting.

Collaborate on Solutions

You can also ask them if they have ideas that would help them overcome or modify problems on their job. Let them collaborate to recommend goals or activities (like training or a change in duties) that would improve the situation.

On a human level, ask if there are personal stresses that can be lifted.

  • Would they want to take paid time off (family care leave, short-term disability, etc.) to take care of personal business? (It wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask that they first try to clear their desk so other employees won’t have to take on their workload.)
  • If a medical condition is the root of an issue, encourage them to see a doctor.
  • Would working at home on a temporary or part-time basis help alleviate a contributing factor to the problem

End on a Positive Note

Set some realistic but not-too-distant dates to check back on their progress.

Reassure them that the company would rather foster their growth rather than lose a person they see as an asset to their success.

Avoid threatening ultimatums like “Failure to complete a task will result in …” Take progressive coaching one step at a time.

Note: This approach to disciplinary issues is best for less serious offenses. Depending on the performance or behavior, the situation may actually merit the use of the “progressive discipline” approach.


Moving from a disciplinary-based approach that can create more problems than it solves to a coaching-based methodology that seeks progressive improvement is a major change in mindset and procedure. Ultimately, progressive coaching provides solutions and mindful personal management, which builds a culture of cooperation and trust.

A healthier working environment leads to employee retention, improved performance, and good morale, which can only lead to better customer satisfaction and a more successful business. For more information, check out this blog post on Handling Advice and Feedback.