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University Human Resources

Staff Employee Disciplinary Action: When and How to Take It

Disciplining employees is a difficult part of supervision and management. It is important that you address performance issues as they arise and pursue a progressive approach to discipline.

In all instances where you believe that discipline may be appropriate, please contact the Office of Labor Relations or your HR Consultant for assistance.

An Overview

Because employee discipline is a difficult experience that managers and supervisors sometimes face, these guidelines are intended to review the most effective approach to managing performance and/or behavioral issues. Behavioral issues generally result in disruption to the work environment; for example, workplace misconduct and/or rules violations, as well as performance issues, result in a failure to meet goals and/or properly perform tasks, such as when an individual lacks the knowledge, skills or ability to perform the job, or where the work is consistently unacceptable in terms of quality or productivity.

Discipline should not generally come as a surprise to the employee. Occasionally employees are unaware of their supervisors' dissatisfaction until they suddenly receive a formal written reprimand or a letter of termination. Try to avoid this situation if possible and attempt to regularly communicate issues to employees rather than wait until the performance problems can no longer be tolerated or until annual performance reviews are conducted.

When it becomes necessary to discipline an employee, two principles apply:

  • first, the employee must be clearly informed by the supervisor as to the source of dissatisfaction;
  • second, except in limited circumstances, the employee should be given the opportunity to correct the problem. 

In most cases, the purpose of discipline is to instruct and correct rather than to punish. It is your responsibility as a supervisor to explain to the employee those areas in which he or she is expected to improve, to make suggestions about how to improve, and to allow time for the employee to make improvements. 

It is usually only in instances such as theft, physical violence or other serious misconduct that immediate termination may be the proper action. If you believe that you are confronted by such a case, please seek assistance from the Office of Labor Relations.

Progressive Discipline

In most instances of behavioral problems, supervisors are encouraged to take a progressive approach to discipline.  Please reach out to the Office of Labor Relations for assistance.

  1. When you become aware of a problem, promptly speak to the employee, taking particular care to specify the deficiencies you wish to see corrected and how corrective action is to be undertaken. Have as many additional discussions with the employee as seems appropriate under the particular circumstances. Usually, at this early stage, the employee should be given advice and guidance rather than a reprimand. It is important to maintain, at a minimum, a log of all discussions of this nature with employees. If the employee seems uncertain of the advice being given, then a confirmation of the discussion(s) in writing is advisable.
  2. If, after a reasonable period of time, there is no improvement, or insufficient improvement, write* formally to the employee explaining the reasons for your dissatisfaction with his or her conduct. Often it is helpful if such a letter makes reference to your earlier discussions with the employee. Ultimately it may be necessary to write to the employee to indicate that he or she will be suspended without pay or terminated if there is insufficient improvement in the conduct.
  3. If there continues to be insufficient improvement, a suspension* without pay for a short period of time is appropriate. You should specifically state, in a suspension letter, that the employee will be subject to further suspensions without pay or termination if there continues to be insufficient improvement. Please note that because of Fair Labor Standards Act regulations, a suspension for an NL employee generally must be for a full workweek; if you believe the offense does not warrant a full week of suspension without pay, please contact the Office of Labor Relations to discuss possible alternatives.

When it is apparent that a progressive disciplinary approach has failed and that the necessary change in behavior has not been achieved, you may decide to terminate* the employee.

Before terminating, however, you must give the employee written notification that you are scheduling him or her to attend a Pre-Termination Conference, and attach a draft copy of a letter specifying the reasons for termination. During the Pre-Termination Conference, give the employee an opportunity to respond to the reasons for termination, and consider what he or she says. After the meeting, you may investigate further if you so choose. Nonetheless, at the conclusion of the process, decide whether or not you will terminate or impose some lesser discipline. If you decide to terminate, simply finalize the initial draft letter and issue it to the employee.

The sequence outlined in steps 1, 2, and 3 above may not be appropriate in every circumstance. The appropriate number of discussions, letters, formal reprimands, and/or suspensions before termination, the repetition or exclusion of one or another of the steps, and the length of time between the steps taken may depend on many factors such as the length of service of the employee; the level, nature and responsibilities of the particular position concerned; the previous disciplinary record of the employee; the nature and seriousness of the problem; and any improvement made by the employee throughout this process.

Such a progressive disciplinary approach may not be necessary with performance-based problems (i.e., if an employee’s deficiencies in performing the functions of the position or meeting goals are such that they cannot be corrected by coaching, training or disciplinary action, such as when an employee lacks a particular skill, aptitude or ability). In these instances, acknowledge the employee’s lack of ability as soon as possible and provide consistent and regular performance assistance, evaluation, coaching and/or training. Then, after a reasonable period of time, if you conclude that the employee’s performance still has not reached and will not reach a satisfactory level, termination may be appropriate.  Please note that this application of the disciplinary process is distinct from the Performance evaluation process.  In all instances where you believe that discipline may be appropriate for a performance-based issue, please contact the Office of Labor Relations for further consultation.

* For Legacy-UMDNJ Staff Positions, please refer to Legacy UMDNJ Staff Positions Counseling Notice and Legacy-UMDNJ Staff Positions Discipline Notice.

Additional Considerations

In regards to discipline, the following principals are important:

  • Be honest, frank, and precise about the sources of your dissatisfaction and about your future expectations for the employee;
  • Keep your criticisms free of non-work related matters and be as unemotional as possible, even though the situation is often stressful to you as a supervisor as well as to the employee.

There are also some procedural items to keep in mind:

  • First, the employee should sign the disciplinary letter in order to acknowledge that he or she has read it; if the employee refuses to sign, that should be noted on the letter;
  • Second, provide one copy of the disciplinary letter to the employee and one copy to University Human Resources for placement into the official university personnel file;
  • Third, if the employee is covered by a collective negotiations agreement, you should refer to the applicable collective negotiations agreement to ascertain the requirements for notification of the union.

Unionized employees may grieve discipline or termination in accordance with the applicable collective negotiations agreement, but that fact should not deter you as a supervisor from taking appropriate action when necessary.