Implementing a workplace disciplinary program

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by Mike Rich

One important element of an effective workplace safety and health policy is an Employee Disciplinary Program. Obviously, taking disciplinary actions is not ideal; a disciplinary program is not designed to create a threatening or fearful work environment. It’s important to remember that unsafe behavior doesn’t only affect you, but puts both your coworkers and your company at risk. A disciplinary program gives you access to knowing what’s expected of you and your commitment to safety as a member of your workplace team.


The top priority of any business is to maintain a safe and healthful workplace for its employees. Just under that is the bottom line. The repercussions of a safety violation can have a severe impact on a business’s profitability. Smaller businesses have actually collapsed entirely under the weight of a safety backlash. Costs can include OSHA fines, attorney fees, increased insurance premiums, lost work hours, and decreased productivity among a whole slew of additional side effects. Ensuring employees are aware of expectations and established work rules is a necessary step towards self-preservation, and a disciplinary program helps to enforce that.


  • First and foremost, to protect you and your coworkers. The goal of an effective disciplinary program is primarily to discourage employees from behaving in a manner that would put themselves or others at risk
  • You have clear guidelines for what it expected of you, and what the consequences are for not adhering to those guidelines
  • A disciplinary program is built with fairness and equality in mind. You are as subject to its policies in exactly the same manner as anyone else working for your company, from entry-level employees to upper management
  • For non-serious infractions, you have the opportunity to modify unsuitable behavior. This can be particularly helpful should you perhaps not have known that what you were doing was an issue
  • A disciplinary program provides the opportunity for improvement. When problem behavior is identified, your employer can give you suggestions and coaching on how to work more safely
  • A safe workplace is a happy workplace. Because you know that everyone is subject to the same expectations, you can rest assured another worker behaving unsafely will be corrected as you would


The best way to avoid disciplinary action is to do things right the first time. Your employer will provide all the training you need in order to perform your job safely and efficiently. Make sure you are attentive during all training sessions and exercises. If you feel as though you didn’t understand the material completely, ask your trainer for clarification. While working, if you discover you are unsure how to proceed safely with a given work task, contact your supervisor for assistance and additional training. You can only do things correctly if you know how, so pay attention.


To maximize your chances of success, you are given a number of opportunities to correct problem behaviors once they have been identified. Should you be observed or reported exhibiting unsafe behaviors in the workplace, you will face disciplinary actions in the following order:

  1. Verbal Warning
  2. Written Warning
  3. Suspension
  4. Termination

You should be aware that certain behaviors can lead to immediate termination without regard for any of the previous disciplinary steps. What these behaviors are will be outlined in your company’s disciplinary program, but often include things such as violating the drug-free workplace program, violence, harassment, theft, fraud, or serious safety violations that put others in imminent danger, such as lockout/tagout errors or failure to utilize fall protection measures.

Verbal Warning

A verbal warning is meant to be an informal discussion with your employer to point out and make you aware of problem behavior. This warning should be looked upon favorably, as it is your opportunity to take corrective steps to ensure you’re on the right track. During this meeting, you will be informed of what further consequences lie ahead should you fail to adjust properly. You will also have the chance to explain your side of the story.

Written Warning

Continued failure to meet safety expectations will result in a written warning. This will usually involve a second member of management to serve as a witness. A written warning is exactly what it sounds like – a formally documented warning describing the nature of the problem or issues, instructions for what you are expected to change, a detail of the verbal warning you had initially, and the consequences for continuing to act unsafely. You will be asked to sign a copy of the warning to indicate you understand what has been discussed; remember the warning is still valid even should you decline to sign.


At this stage, you will be temporarily suspended from all work activities. This is the final step in the disciplinary program process before termination. At the meeting, you will receive a written letter which describes how long you will be suspended, when you can return to work, what behavior led to the suspension, what changes must be made to correct the behavior, and what the consequences will be should you return to work and fail to make those changes. You may have the opportunity to appeal the suspension based on your company’s individual disciplinary program policies.

Suspension is generally with pay unless your employment contract says otherwise.


In the end, failing to make the changes necessary to adjust unsafe work behavior will lead to termination. A strength of a disciplinary program is that you are given sufficient opportunity to avoid this stage, so naturally it’s in your best interest to not let it get this far. At this meeting, you will be given a letter of termination with another member of management present, informing you that you are no longer employed with the company along with a description of reasoning.


A copy of the workplace disciplinary program is given to employees upon hire, and you must verify you have received and understood it as a condition of employment. Of course it would be easy to skim over the program and sign the agreement, but it’s in your best interest to familiarize yourself with all of its elements so you know what to expect. You should speak with a supervisor of human resources if you have any questions about the disciplinary program or its policies.