Progressive discipline is a management tool aimed at improving and sustaining the profitability of an organization by ensuring that its employees follow policies and procedures. Designed to hold employees accountable, progressive discipline offers an effective method of delivering documented negative recognition to employees whose actions and behaviors contradict corporate policy.

The psychology behind progressive discipline is rooted in stimulus-response theories, the heart of the principles of conditioning and the basis for American psychologist Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect. Simply put, it states that a response that is followed by pleasant effects will be repeated and the response followed by unpleasant effects will not. This principle is clearly demonstrated in child rearing. For example, a parent who approves of their child’s behaviour will deliver a response in the form of positive recognition that will give the child a pleasant effect. This is aimed at reinforcing the desired behaviour and encouraging the child to repeat it. The same parent who now disapproves of their child’s behaviour will provide a response or negative recognition that will result in unpleasant effect for the child. The objective is then to discourage the child from exhibiting the undesired behaviour while reinforcing the preferred one.

The Law of Effect holds true in the workplace. When an employee performs a task, meets expectations, and is positively recognized for it by management, the employee is motivated to meet current and future expectations. When the same employee for instance, is late handing in his report and is negatively recognized for it, the expectation is that the employee will immediately respect the policy and begin to abide by timelines.

Too often however, organizations struggle with disciplinary issues. First, labour laws and collective agreements have made many managers and organizations apprehensive, even fearful, of using disciplinary actions as a motivational tool for correction.

Another reason is a lack of consistency with respect to the application of disciplinary policies and procedures. In the Performance Development portion of our Professional Manager continuous improvement training series, we ask participants to communicate their understanding of disciplinary policies and procedures in their respective organizations. You would be surprised to hear the contradictory answers.


  • Ensure that all levels of management and supervision who are empowered with the responsibility and authority to use progressive discipline have a full understanding of the policy; know how to use it and when to apply it. This can be accomplished by reviewing the policy and procedures with the management/supervisory teams so as to develop uniformity.
  • Ensure that managers and supervisors do not use progressive discipline as a substitute for effective communication with the employee. Promote the use of disciplinary action as a last resort, once candid face-to-face communication has failed. Many employees don’t know what is fully expected of them and once made aware, will take corrective steps.
  • Ensure that managers and supervisors treat everyone equally as all policies must apply to all employees. This will eliminate the perception of favouritism. Consistency is key.