What is disciplinary action?

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

  • What is disciplinary action?

  • Types of disciplinary actions

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 behavior at work. These issues can range from less “serious” offenses such as repeated tardiness or inappropriate behavior, to dismissible offenses such as harassment or theft.

Disciplinary action is typically taken when an employee breaches company rules, policies, or standards. For instance, before taking disciplinary action, you might offer the employee an opportunity to correct their behavior 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 labor 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

Disciplinary action usually escalates depending on the severity of the issue. 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 serious, 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 behavior 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 behavior.

Termination. The final and most severe form of disciplinary action. This step is generally taken only for severe offenses, or when other forms of disciplinary action have not resulted in the necessary behavioral 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 behavior and discipline. It's essential to be sensitive to these differences while maintaining a consistent standard of behavior across the organization.

Expert advice
In a nutshell
  • Disciplinary action should be fair, legal, and focused on improvement.

  • Each country has its own labor laws and cultural norms for discipline.

  • HR leaders need to navigate these differences while ensuring consistency.