What is disciplinary action?

Steps employers take to address poor performance or inappropriate behaviour in employees.

  • What is disciplinary action?

  • Types of disciplinary actions

What is disciplinary action?

What is disciplinary action?

Disciplinary action is a step (or series of steps) that an employer can take to correct or manage an employee’s poor performance or behaviour at work. These issues can range from less “serious” offences such as repeated tardiness or inappropriate behaviour, to dismissible offences such as harassment or theft.

Disciplinary action is typically taken when an employee breaches company rules, policies, or standards. In most cases, the response should be escalative in nature (depending on the severity of the offence).

For instance, before taking disciplinary action, you might give the employee an opportunity to correct their behaviour through coaching or constructive feedback. If they fail to improve, or if the infraction is severe enough to warrant immediate action, disciplinary procedures may be initiated.

Any disciplinary action — up to and including termination — must be legally compliant. This can be tricky for global teams, as every country has its own unique labour laws around disciplinary procedures. In Germany, for example, terminations require a notice period and, in certain cases, approval from a works council. In the US, however, employees are generally employed "at-will," meaning their employment can be terminated without notice (unless otherwise stated in the employment contract).

Types of disciplinary actions

Types of disciplinary actions

As mentioned, disciplinary action is usually escalative. Here are some of the most common forms of action taken:

Verbal warning. This is usually the first step in the disciplinary process. The intention is to make the employee aware of their misconduct and give them a chance to rectify it.

Written warning. If the issue persists, or is of a serious nature, you may issue a written warning. This serves as a formal notice of the problem and often includes a timeline for improvement and an outline of potential consequences if improvement is not made.

Suspension. If the employee's behaviour still does not improve or if the infraction is serious, they may be temporarily removed from the workplace. This step is usually taken to protect the company or other employees, or as a stronger measure to prompt change in the employee's behaviour.

Termination. The final and most severe form of disciplinary action. This step is generally taken only for severe offences, or when other forms of disciplinary action have not resulted in the necessary behavioural change.

For HR leaders of global teams, understanding and managing disciplinary action is crucial. As well as being aware of each country’s relevant employment regulations, they must also navigate different cultural norms and local expectations around employee behaviour and discipline. It's essential to be sensitive to these differences while maintaining a consistent standard of behaviour across the organisation.