At first glance, progressive discipline seems like a system that helps protect employees. The idea is that an employer needs to notify a worker about subpar performance or rule infractions so that they can improve their behavior or correct their mistakes.
Progressive discipline may start with a verbal warning and then move on to a written warning or may involve a series of written warnings that culminate in termination for the worker involved. Given that a worker gets multiple warnings and write-ups before they face severe consequences, progressive discipline might seem beneficial.
However, employers may use it as a weak disguise for a wrongful termination.
When an employer starts complaining is significant
Some people have performance issues the entire time that they work at a company. If someone has write-ups going back over their entire career with a company, then those disciplinary measures are likely reasonable and appropriate.
On the other hand, when discipline only starts after a worker engages in a legally protected activity, that could be a big warning sign that the discipline is really a cover-up for retaliation. Workers who report their employer to regulatory agencies, who claim workers’ compensation benefits, or who report harassment or discrimination on the job are among those who might need to worry about retaliatory discipline by their employer.
If your boss starts enforcing rules they have long ignored or writing you up for things that they don’t write up other employees for, that could be a bright red flag warning you of impending retaliatory termination.
What should you do when you suspect retaliation?
If reporting other forms of misconduct to your employer have resulted in them finding excuses to discipline you, then internally raising concerns about that exact behavior likely won’t improve the situation.
Instead, the best way to protect yourself is to document what you experience. Showing the double standard and keeping personal records about each disciplinary write-up and how it conflicted with the way management treats other workers or treated you before your complaint could help you in the future.
Those who do wind up losing their job unfairly may be able to fight back by taking their employer to court over the wrongful termination they experienced. Identifying the warning signs of a potential wrongful termination can help you protect yourself.