The Four Stages of Disciplinary Action

The Four Stages of Disciplinary Action

Maintaining a productive and harmonious work environment is crucial for success in every organization. However, there are instances when employees may exhibit misconduct or fail to meet performance expectations. In such situations, employers are responsible for addressing these issues through a systematic process known as disciplinary action. Understanding the stages of disciplinary action is essential for employers and employees to ensure fair and effective resolution of workplace problems. The four stages of disciplinary action that are important are listed below.

Related: How to deal with `We regret to inform you`

1. Verbal Warning

A verbal warning is the initial stage of disciplinary action employers take to address an employee's misconduct. Unlike written warnings, verbal warnings are informal conversations between the employer and the employee. Its primary purpose is to clarify expectations and allow employees to correct their behavior or improve their performance.

Key aspects of a verbal warning


  • Verbal warnings should be given promptly after the observed misconduct or performance issue occurs. Timeliness allows the employee to understand the concern while the incident is still fresh in everyone's mind.
  • Verbal warnings should be conducted privately, away from other employees. This ensures the employee does not feel embarrassed or humiliated and encourages open communication.
  • The employer should clearly outline the reasons for the verbal warning and be specific about the observed behavior. This helps the employee understand what they need to change.
  • Employers should approach the verbal warning with a constructive mindset. The goal is not to reprimand or criticize the employee but to provide guidance and support for improvement.
  • While a verbal warning may not be formally documented, employers may choose to keep a record of the conversation for reference in case further disciplinary action is needed later.
  • During the conversation, the employer can remind employees of company policies, rules, and expectations. This reinforces the importance of compliance with the organization's standards.
  • After issuing the verbal warning, employers should check in with the employee periodically to monitor progress and offer any necessary support or resources to aid improvement.

You may be asking yourself, what are the consequences of a verbal warning?

Verbal warnings usually do not lead to severe consequences like written warnings or termination. Instead, they serve as a wake-up call to the employee to address the issue before it escalates. Employers need to use verbal warnings consistently. While some minor issues can be effectively addressed with a verbal warning alone, more serious or repeated misconduct may require the progression to written warnings.

2. Written Warning

A written warning is a formal disciplinary action employers take to address an employee's ongoing misconduct after issuing a verbal warning. Unlike verbal warnings, written warnings are documented and serve as an official record of the disciplinary process. They outline the specific issues, set clear expectations for improvement, and warn the employee of potential consequences if the problems persist.

Key aspects of a written warning

  • A written warning is a written document prepared by the employer or human resources department. It should be clear, concise, and well-structured, providing a comprehensive account of the employee's shortcomings and the required improvements.
  • The written warning should focus on objectively describing the employee's behavior or performance problems. It should avoid personal attacks and focus on facts to maintain fairness and clarity.
  • The written warning should reference any prior verbal warnings given to the employee, demonstrating that the issues have been previously discussed.
  • The written warning should clearly state the expectations for improvement, including specific areas to address and a realistic timeline. The written warning may also offer support and resources to help the employee improve, including additional training, mentoring, or counseling.

What are the consequences of a written warning?

The written warning should outline the potential consequences if the employee fails to meet the expected standards. This may include further disciplinary action, such as suspension or termination of employment.

The employee must usually sign the written warning to acknowledge receiving it. A copy of the written warning is often kept in the employee's personnel file for future reference. This documentation can be valuable if further disciplinary action becomes necessary.

Employees often have the right to appeal the written warning if they believe it is unfair or unjustified. Employers should have an established process for handling such appeals.

Employers must ensure that the written warning is issued consistently and fairly to maintain a positive work environment and prevent any allegations of discrimination or favoritism. By following proper procedures and adhering to legal guidelines, written warnings can help foster a culture of accountability and performance improvement within the organization. Here is a template of a written warning format.

The Four Stages of Disciplinary Action

3. Suspension

Suspension is a disciplinary action employers take to temporarily remove an employee from their regular work duties due to serious misconduct, repeated violations of company policies, or as part of an investigation into alleged wrongdoing. The purpose of a suspension is to allow the employer time to conduct a thorough investigation, protect the work environment, and allow the employee to reflect on their actions.

Key aspects of a suspension

  • Suspension involves temporarily removing the employee from their regular job duties and responsibilities. The duration of the suspension can vary depending on the severity of the offence and the company's policies.
  • In cases where an investigation is required, the suspension gives the employer the time and space to gather evidence, interview witnesses, and objectively assess the situation.
  • Employers should clearly communicate the reasons for the suspension to the employee. The employee should be informed of the alleged misconduct or policy violation that led to the suspension.
  • The employer should maintain confidentiality during the suspension period to protect the rights of the suspended employee and any other involved parties.
  • Some organizations enforce a paid suspension, where the employee continues to receive their regular pay during the suspension period. Others may opt for an unpaid suspension, where the employee does not receive wages for the duration of the suspension.
  • In certain cases, the suspension may be initiated while the investigation is ongoing. The final decision regarding the employee's status is then determined based on the investigation's outcome.
  • During the suspension period, the employer may offer support or resources to the employee, such as access to counseling services or legal advice.
  • After the suspension period ends, the employee may return to work, provided that they have complied with any conditions set during the suspension and demonstrated a willingness to improve their conduct.
  • Depending on the findings of the investigation and the employee's behavior during the suspension, the employer may reinstate the employee with or without conditions or in severe cases, terminate their employment.

It is crucial for employers to follow proper procedures and adhere to employment laws and regulations when implementing suspensions. Fairness and consistency are vital to maintaining employee trust and ensuring disciplinary actions are carried out appropriately.

4. Termination

Termination, also known as dismissal or firing, is the final stage of disciplinary action taken by employers when an employee's performance, conduct, or behavior fails to meet the required standards despite previous warnings or when there is a severe violation of company policies. Termination results in the permanent end of the employment relationship between the employer and the employee.

Key aspects of termination

  • Termination is a significant decision that severs the employment relationship between the employer and the employee. Once termination is implemented, it is usually irreversible, and the employee is no longer affiliated with the organization.
  • Employers should have proper documentation of the disciplinary process leading up to the termination. This includes records of verbal and written warnings, evidence of the employee's performance or misconduct issues, and any appeal processes followed.
  • Employers must ensure that the decision to terminate an employee complies with employment laws and regulations, including labor rights, anti-discrimination measures, and contractual obligations.
  • In some cases, employers conduct an exit interview with the terminated employee to discuss the reasons for termination, offer feedback, and handle the return of company property or documents.
  • Employers must pay the terminated employee any outstanding wages or compensation, including unused vacation days or other accrued benefits, as labor laws or employment contracts require.
  • While termination is a serious action, employers should handle the process with empathy and compassion, recognizing the impact it may have on the employee's life and livelihood.
  • Employers should communicate the termination decision directly and clearly to the employee, outlining the reasons for the termination and any relevant information about severance pay or benefits.
  • Employers must ensure that the terminated employee's access to company premises, systems, and confidential information is revoked to protect the organization's interests.
  • To protect the privacy and dignity of the terminated employee, employers should maintain confidentiality about the reasons for the termination with other employees.

Related: 5 Things To Do Before You Get Fired

Employers should consider termination as a last resort and to exhaust all other disciplinary measures before reaching this stage. Termination should be based on objective and documented evidence of the employee's performance or misconduct issues and conducted without discrimination or bias. Here's a termination letter template.

The four stages of disciplinary action represent a progressive approach to resolving workplace disciplinary issues. Effective disciplinary action requires clear communication, fairness, and adherence to company policies and regulatory requirements. Taking corrective action during the early stages can prevent more severe consequences for employees. For employers, following a structured and compassionate approach to discipline can contribute to a positive work environment and foster a culture of accountability and improvement.

Mthulisi Mlilo
This article was written by Mthulisi a Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd

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