The Five Steps of Coaching & Progressive Discipline

Coaching and progressive discipline is the process for teaching employees new skills and dealing with job-related behavior that does not meet expected performance standards. The primary purpose of progressive discipline is to assist the employee to understand that a performance problem or opportunity for improvement exists. The goal of this process is to have the employee improve their performance to average or above-average expectations, but sometimes this doesn’t happen. In these instances, there must be a commitment to move forward with a separation or the entire process becomes meaningless.

There are five steps that can be taken in the progressive discipline process:

  • Coaching Note (AKA Verbal Warning)
  • Written Warning
  • Final Warning
  • Decision Day/Suspension
  • Separation


Coaching Note

The coaching note should include the details of the behavior and site-specific examples. Include dates, who, what, where, why and how. The conversation can be informal but should be specific. Address behaviors that have been observed and not general personality traits. For example, “an attitude problem” is a personality trait, not a behavior. Specifically, what has been observed? Rolling eyes? Inappropriate comments? These would be the specific behaviors to address.

Address the consequences if the behavior is not improved. Be clear that if the behavior continues additional progressive discipline, such as a written warning, could result. Include an action plan that addresses what is expected of the employee moving forward. Incorporate examples of improvement where appropriate.

The coaching note serves to document the conversation should it be needed in the future. The employee does not need to sign it, however, there are some situations where it may be beneficial. For example, it may be more impactful to have the employee see the document in front of them, review it and acknowledge it with a signature.

Written Warning & Final Written Warning

Written warnings are always a formal process. They are always documented, and the document is presented to the employee. Like the coaching note, the warning should include the details of the violation, behavior observed, and an action plan to correct the behavior. The warning should be future-focused and include a statement that their job is in jeopardy. It should be noted if the written warning is a final written warning. (Depending on the severity of the misconduct, the first written warning can also be the final written warning.) The document should be prepared ahead of time and it should detail the consequences of not correcting the behavior. There should be a witness and the document should be signed by all parties present.


Decision Day/Suspension

Decision day can be used to give the employee one last chance to prove that they want to be a member of the organization. This is an optional step and not used in all situations. However, under the right circumstances, it can be very impactful. This tactic is typically used with an employee who can do the job well but has some performance issue that is keeping them from being successful, such as attendance-based issues.

Ask the employee to think about what they are going to do to improve the situation. Consider giving them the rest of the day off to draft a written action plan. It is recommended that they are paid for this time because they are performing a task that is a term and condition of their continued employment.

Suspensions are used when it is necessary to remove an employee from the work environment. Examples of this include when the employee is the subject of an investigation or if there have been acts of violence or threats. In most cases, a suspension is 3 days or less and typically unpaid. Suspensions are not effective with attendance-based issues.



The goal of progressive discipline is to assist the employee to understand that a performance problem exists and give them an opportunity to improve. However, sometimes that doesn’t happen, and there must be a willingness to move forward with a separation. If the decision is to separate, include the final incident that resulted in the decision to terminate employment. This is usually the determining factor in the Department of Labor’s decision regarding the employee’s eligibility for unemployment. It is recommended to have a witness during separation. The separation procedure should take no more than five minutes. Strive to remain factual, objective and allow the employee to leave the company with their dignity intact.

For more information on progressive discipline, current clients may contact their HR Business Partner. Not a current client? To learn more about how ESC can assist your company with progressive discipline training or other HR concerns, contact our business development team here.