Disciplinary action meaning

Disciplinary action meaning

In the context of Human Resources (HR), "disciplinary action" refers to the formal process an employer follows to address an employee's behavior or performance that does not meet the company's policies, rules, or standards. 

This action is aimed at correcting the behavior, ensuring compliance, and maintaining a productive and safe work environment. 

Types of HR disciplinary actions for employees

Disciplinary actions in HR typically follow a structured approach, often referred to as a "disciplinary procedure" or "disciplinary policy," which is usually outlined in the employee handbook.

The types and severity of disciplinary actions can vary but generally follow a graduated approach, from less severe to more severe, depending on the issue and whether it's a repeat offense. Here is a common sequence:

Verbal warning

The lowest level of disciplinary action. Verbal warning meaning is where the manager verbally reprimands the employee for the misconduct. Usually, there's a follow-up to see if the behavior has improved.

Written warning

A formal written document outlining the infraction and the expected corrective actions. This often gets placed in the employee's personnel file.


A period during which the employee’s performance and behavior are closely monitored. Failure to improve may result in further disciplinary action.

Demotion or pay cut

Employee gets demoted from his position or is asked to take a salary cut.


Temporarily removing the employee from their role, either with or without pay, as a more severe form of disciplinary action.


The most severe form of disciplinary action, where the employment relationship is ended due to the infraction(s).

Other Actions

Depending on the organization and the severity/nature of the misconduct, other actions might include demotion, reassignment, or mandatory training.

Disciplinary actions are generally documented and communicated clearly to the employee, ensuring that there is a record of the actions taken. This is important both for consistency and fairness, and also for legal protection in case of disputes or litigation.

Always consult your organization’s specific policies and guidelines and, when in doubt, seek legal advice.

What actions by employees would require an HR to take disciplinary action?

Disciplinary action could be initiated for:

Ethical and legal violations

Theft or fraud

Stealing property or manipulating records for personal gain.

Harassment or discrimination

Any form of harassment, including sexual or bullying, or discriminatory actions based on race, gender, religion, etc.

Violence or threats

Physical violence or the threat thereof.

Violation of company policies

Breaking specific rules as outlined in the employee handbook.

Illegal activities

Engaging in activities that are illegal, whether or not they are related to the job.

Performance issues


Refusal to follow reasonable orders from a superior.

Poor performance

Consistently failing to meet job expectations or performance metrics.


Failing to exercise the care expected in the performance of one's duties, potentially causing harm or loss to the company.

Absenteeism and tardiness

Consistently arriving late or not showing up for work without a valid reason.

Conduct and behavior

Disruptive behavior

Behavior that disrupts the workflow, such as excessive noise, improper use of company time, or creating disturbances among co-workers.

Falsification of records

Lying on timesheets, expense reports, or other company records.

Breach of confidentiality

Sharing confidential or proprietary information without authorization.

Misuse of company property

Using company resources for personal benefit or in a manner not intended by the company.

Safety violations

Unsafe practices

Violating safety guidelines or regulations, thereby endangering oneself or others.

Drug and alcohol Abuse

Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol at work, or abusing substances in a way that affects work performance or safety.

Cybersecurity and data handling

Unauthorized access or data theft

Accessing or distributing confidential data without proper authorization.

Failure to follow IT policies

Such as downloading unauthorized software, which could compromise cybersecurity.

Social media misconduct

Inappropriate social media use

Posting derogatory, discriminatory, or damaging material online about the company or its employees.

Disciplinary action procedure - a detailed overview

Here's a typical disciplinary action procedure:

Pre-disciplinary steps

Clear Guidelines

Ensure that company policies, expected behaviors, and potential consequences for violations are clearly outlined in an employee handbook or similar resource.

Initial observations and documentation

Managers should document instances of problematic behavior or subpar performance as they occur.


Preliminary investigation

Before taking any disciplinary action, HR or management should conduct an initial investigation to determine the validity of the allegations.

Collection of evidence

This could include interviews with involved parties, collection of email correspondence, security footage, etc.

Communication and meetings

Informal conversation

For minor infractions, an informal conversation between the employee and their immediate supervisor might suffice to correct the issue.

Formal meeting

For more serious or repeated issues, a formal meeting involving the employee, their manager, and possibly an HR representative should be held. The employee should be informed in advance about the purpose of the meeting and be allowed to prepare a response or even have a representative (e.g., union rep) present.


You can take any of the following actions as per your policy.

  • Verbal warning
  • Written warning
  • Demotion
  • Suspension
  • Termination or others



Each step should be documented, including meetings, warnings, and actions taken.

Employee Acknowledgment

It’s generally good practice to have the employee acknowledge in writing that they have been informed of the disciplinary action.

Appeal process

Internal review

Some organizations allow for an appeal or internal review of disciplinary actions.

External redress

In some jurisdictions or industries, there might be an external body where appeals can be lodged.

Post-action follow-Up

Monitoring and feedback

For actions less severe than termination, there should be a follow-up process to assess whether the desired change in behavior or performance has been achieved.


Based on the outcome, further actions, either positive (like lifting a probation) or negative (escalating the disciplinary action), can be considered.

What to not do with disciplinary action or its procedure?

Disciplinary actions must adhere to certain legal and ethical standards to ensure that they are fair, consistent, and non-discriminatory. There are some actions that are generally considered unacceptable under most disciplinary policies:


Disciplinary action cannot be based on race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, religion, or any other protected category under the law.


Employers should not discipline employees for filing complaints, whistleblowing, or participating in workplace investigations.

Arbitrary punishment

Disciplinary actions should be consistent and in line with previously established company policies. Arbitrary or inconsistent punishments can be seen as unfair or even discriminatory.

Invasion of privacy

Employers should not monitor employees in a way that violates their reasonable expectation of privacy.

Public humiliation

Disciplinary issues should be handled discreetly to respect the dignity of the employee involved.

Excessive discipline

The punishment should be proportionate to the offense. Overly severe or extreme disciplinary actions can be considered unfair or abusive.

Lack of due process

Employees generally should be given an opportunity to present their side of the story before disciplinary action is taken, especially for more severe actions like suspension or termination.

Failure to document

Disciplinary actions should be properly documented and the documentation should be securely stored. This protects both the employer and the employee.


Policies and expected behaviors should be clearly defined so that there is no ambiguity that could lead to unfair disciplinary action.

Violations of contract

Any disciplinary action must be in line with employment contracts, collective bargaining agreements, or other contractual obligations between the employer and employee.

Physical or emotional abuse

Physical intimidation, threats, or any form of abuse should never be a part of disciplinary actions.

Not providing resources for improvement

Especially for performance-related issues, it's generally expected that employers provide resources or avenues for the employee to improve before taking severe disciplinary steps.

Ignoring employee rights

Employees have certain legal rights that vary by jurisdiction but may include the right to union representation during disciplinary meetings, among others. Ignoring these rights is not permissible.

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