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Managing employee performance and discipline

Managing employee productivity and conduct can be a difficult task for any employer. If you have concerns about your employee’s performance, this guide for disciplinary procedures will provide you with the tools you need to help navigate difficult workplace issues.

When faced with problematic employees, weak performance or undesirable behavior, employers are expected to progress through a series of escalating disciplinary measures – what employment lawyers and human resource professionals commonly refer to as ‘progressive discipline.’

Summarily firing an employee should be an option of last resort, reserved for the most egregious of offences. A progressive disciplinary policy aims to help foster a positive work environment and to create productive, responsible employees. Such a policy also provides evidentiary support for employers who ultimately have to let an employee go.

Moving through the gears of progressive discipline

Employers need to address concerns about performance or conduct before they become a habit. Employees who have been working for a long time without complaint may assume that they are doing an acceptable job. Allowing unacceptable behavior or performance to continue for too long may appear as though you have condoned it. In this case, you may not be able to use the employee’s inadequacy as grounds for future termination.

1. The sit-down

The first step in a progressive disciplinary policy is talking to the employee about your concerns face-to-face. Let them know that you are dissatisfied with their performance. Make sure that the employee understands what is expected of them and why. Clarify what the consequences will be if they fail to meet these expectations. These consequences may be further reprimands, suspension or even termination. Set a deadline for the employee’s improvement so that they know the timeframe in which they are working. If things do not improve fast enough, or your employee seems reticent to improve at all, it’s time to proceed to the next disciplinary step.

2. Issue a written reprimand

The employee’s behavior or performance fails to improve, despite an employer’s initial efforts, the next step is to give the employee a written warning that clearly states how they are falling short of expectations. The warning should detail in no uncertain terms what will happen if the employee fails to meet these expectations within the prescribed timeframe. Give a signed and dated copy of this letter to the employee and keep one to put in their employment file for your records.

3. Apply further progressive discipline

Depending on your employee’s efforts to change and any other relevant factors, further discipline may be needed. When deciding to put your employee on probation, suspend them (with or without pay), reassign their work or even give them a demotion you should take great care before unilaterally changing the nature of your employee’s work. Failure to do so may result in unintentionally instigating a constructive dismissal.

4. Termination

After taking all the above disciplinary measures, your employee continues to fall short of your expectations, then it may be time to terminate them. If you are deciding to terminate them for cause (meaning they will not receive any termination notice or pay in lieu thereof) you will likely have the necessary cumulative cause and supporting documentation to defend your decision should your employee sue for wrongful dismissal.

The benefits of progressive discipline

Progressive discipline may seem like a great break for employees, but practicing progressive discipline has many benefits beyond second chances.

It provides a great learning opportunity for employers. Getting an employee’s feedback can help uncover shortcomings in training programs or needs for clarification in workplace policies or expectations that can benefit all future employees and therefore your workplace’s overall productivity and success.

If you decide to terminate an employee for cause, having a record of the steps you took to remedy the situation and give your employee opportunities to improve will provide the supporting evidence you need to justify a for cause dismissal in court.

Finally, progressive discipline makes for a healthier work environment overall. By being open and supportive and showing your belief in and care for your employees, you will inspire confidence and foster a positive work environment for all.

If you have any questions regarding disciplinary measures for employees, termination for cause, severance pay or other employment law matters please visit our website or contact us at 1-855-821-5900 or

Alex Lucifero leads Samfiru Tumarkin LLP’s Ottawa office as its Managing Partner, providing sound advice to both employers and employees on all aspects of labour and employment law, including wrongful dismissal, severance packages, terminations and workplace harassment.

Stay up-to-date on workplace rights in Ontario by watching Alex on the Employment Law Minute.