Corrective Action Guidelines and Procedures

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SPU's Employment At Will Policy

Corrective Action Guidelines

Managing Proactively: Limiting the Need for Corrective Action

Things to Consider Before Taking Corrective Action

Taking Corrective Action

Termination of Employment


Employment "At Will" 

The State of Washington is an "At Will" employment state, meaning that the employee or the employer may terminate employment at any time for any reason with or without notice. However, the "at will" doctrine is often challenged in the courts when a terminated employee sues the employer for wrongful termination.

All staff employment at Seattle Pacific University is "at will" and may be terminated by either the employee or the University at any time with or without notice or cause. 

The following guidelines are not intended to create an express or implied contract binding the employee or employer to an agreement of employment for a specific period of time, nor a promise of specific treatment.  None of the information contained herein is intended to alter, modify, or amend the "at will" status of employment.  The University reserves the right to alter, amend, or modify its personnel policies at any time as it deems necessary, but such at-will status is not subject to change absent a written agreement signed by the the president or a designated authorized representative

Supervisor's Even though SPU is an "at will" employer, all disciplinary actions must be handled with the utmost care. Supervisors must not contradict our at will policy by creating expectations of permanent or contractual employment. There are legal implications to be sure, but as a grace-filled institution we must treat each other with grace and genuine respect moving very thoughtfully and carefully into disciplinary situations to preserve the dignity of the individual.


Corrective Action Guidelines (as stated in the Staff Handbook)

Purpose

As a matter of general policy, and not as a promise of specific treatment to any employee, the University may seek to engage in disciplinary action with staff. This means the University may provide a period of time, when appropriate in the University's sole discretion, for the correction of performance or behavior.

Disciplinary procedures may be initiated at any time and for various reasons, as deemed appropriate by the University. The severity of the action may generally depend on the nature of the problem and on the employee's past performance, and may range from verbal counseling to immediate dismissal.

Disciplinary procedures may consist of any or all of the following steps:

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Verbal counseling
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Written warning
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Withholding salary increases
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Suspension with or without pay
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Demotion
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Dismissal

As a general policy, and not as a promise of specific treatment, disciplinary action may be progressive in nature (e.g., a verbal warning preceding a written warning). However, exceptions to or deviations from this general policy may occur whenever the University (in its sole discretion) deems appropriate. The University reserves its right to terminate any employee, at any time, at will, with or without cause and with or without prior disciplinary action.

Supervisor’s note: Although our policy is clear that progressive discipline is only a general policy and not a promise of specific treatment, SPU encourages supervisors to try to use progressive discipline in any situation where it is appropriate to restore the employee to renewed good service.


Managing Proactively: Limiting the Need for Corrective Action

Although there will always be exceptions, most disciplinary actions take place due to a lack of solid communication between supervisor and employee. Situations where disciplinary action must be applied can be very awkward and uncomfortable for both the supervisor and the employee, not to mention the amount of time and the emotional toll these situations require from all parties involved. The very best way for supervisors to avoid these situations is to make smart proactive employment moves.

Interviewing/Reference Checking/Hiring

Hire the right person. Be very thorough in the selection process. Take your time and work with Human Resources to insure you have an adequate pool of candidates from which to choose a finalist. Interview carefully using behavior oriented questions (examples can be found in the Legal Hiring Practices section pages 13-14 or by calling Human Resources). Thorough reference checking is a must and past employers, if they are willing, can provide valuable information. If you don’t have time for reference checking, ask Human Resources to do it for you, but do not skip this very important step in the hiring process!

Supervisor’s note: During busy periods, it’s often tempting to hire an "adequate" employee thinking that you can live with or work through what you know their shortcomings will be. But experienced supervisors know that making an investment in finding great employees pays off when little time is spent monitoring performance or taking disciplinary action.

Coaching and communication

From the employee’s very first day, try to establish clear expectations both in terms of their job description and how they are expected to work within your team. You might go over the employee’s job description with them on their first day and also create a list together of other expectations you have for them as a member of your team. Don’t be afraid of two way communication. Asking your employee to be open with you about how you might assist them as their supervisor in order to be successful. When giving employees assignments, be very clear with them about expectations and outcomes, then step out of the way and act as a resource as they work towards accomplishing the end product. Try to be supportive and helpful, looking for ways to help them improve as employees. Be sure to compliment them on good performance, but be honest when there is a need for improvement.

Supervisor’s note: Good coaching and communication helps employees know where they stand from day to day, lessening the chance that a communication breakdown or a misunderstanding of expectations could lead to a disciplinary situation.

Accurate Performance Evaluations and Proactive Communication

It’s very important for employees to know ahead of time what criteria will be used to evaluate them. Ideally, employees should be shown the evaluation tool that will be used (maybe folding this exercise into the setting of expectations) in the very early stages of their employment.

Employee performance evaluations can be awkward, but you must not be afraid of communicating the things that are good and bad about the employee's performance. Provide clear statements regarding an employee’s expected improvements. Too many supervisors get themselves and their organizations into difficult legal situations when the annual performance evaluation ranks a poor performing employee too highly. 

Supervisor’s note: When a supervisor chooses not to confront an employee on what has become marginal or poor behavior because the confrontation would be too uncomfortable, or the supervisor believes the employee will improve on their own, the supervisor creates a bigger problem for themselves, the employee and the team in which they all work. Rarely does poor behavior improve on its own and only detrimental effects result from putting off the confrontation. The employee is not given a fair chance at improving and the department and manager suffer because of it. Through constant communication, clarity and honesty on performance evaluations, employees are given the chance they need to improve, before disciplinary action has to take place. In addition, inconsistency on performance evaluations can severely hamper an employer’s ability to defend itself in a lawsuit brought by the employee.


Things to Consider Before Taking Corrective Action

If an employee facing discipline or possibly termination falls into one of the categories below, special caution should be used as there are employment laws and other legal pitfalls which in some cases, if not handled appropriately by the employer, could provide an extra measure of protection for the employee.

Age, race, sex, and other protected classifications (see Legal Hiring Considerations for protected characteristics)

Has employee recently:

  •     Filed a workers’ compensation claim?
  •     Complained of safety hazards, sexual harassment, or discrimination?
  •     Protested company practices?

Is employee about to vest in retirement plan or qualify for a significant bonus?

How long has the employee been employed?

Any pending personal problems, i.e. illness, divorce?

Any physical or mental problems that may be interfering with job performance or that may require reasonable accommodation?

Is employee combative, unwilling to accept blame or completely unrealistic in their perceptions?

Supervisor’s note: No matter how simple the situation appears to be, it’s always helpful to seek advice and counsel when working through disciplinary situations. Consult with your supervisor or contact the Director of Human Resources for review of both your oral and written communication plans, or general advice on progressive discipline and/or termination.


Taking Corrective Action

Progressive discipline is a form of communication to the employee and allows the employee an opportunity to improve their performance to acceptable levels.  Although the University does reserve its right to terminate employees at will, progressive discipline may be applied whenever appropriate.

Don’t Contradict Disclaimers:  

Although the University hopes to be able to use progressive discipline whenever appropriate, it’s extremely important that no supervisor contradicts our "at will" disclaimer. Supervisors should not make any statements to employees individually or as a group that somehow imply guaranteed employment. Here are some examples of such statements:

  • "All disciplinary issues in my department will be handled in the same way...through progressive discipline."
  • "You are a permanent employee" (the budget is "permanent," not the person's employment).
  • "the employee's contract started on..." (the salary notification letter is not a contract of employment).
  • "You’ll be around as long as I am"
  • "Don’t worry about being fired or laid off"

There may be times when progressive discipline is deemed by the University as inappropriate and given the circumstances the employee should be terminated immediately.

Dignity, Respect and Confidentiality

No matter how bad the situations strive to treat employees with the utmost respect. Be clear that while you do not condone the behavior (which cannot go unchecked) you are not making judgments on the person. Take the approach that "you are correcting the problem, not punishing the offender".

If a disciplinary action must be taken, try to maintain as much privacy and confidentiality as possible. Conduct disciplinary meetings in private and neutral settings. Avoid displaying your feelings towards the employee’s behavior in front of others. Discuss the matter with unrelated parties only on a "need to know" basis.

Supervisor’s note: Showing employees respect while applying disciplinary action will not only minimize the University’s legal risk of a wrongful termination situation, but more importantly, it upholds our values of becoming and remaining a "grace-filled" institution.

Oral Warnings

In most cases, oral warnings should precede written warnings. Not only does this make logistical sense, but it shows an employee your good faith in their ability to take your concerns seriously and start towards improvement. An oral warning should immediately follow the incident, don’t let several days slip by... it’s harder to confront at a later date and it can be perceived as an "unfair" approach by employees.

Written Warnings

If the behavior continues, present the employee with a written warning. Be sure the written warning cites your attempt to help the employee improve by first providing an oral warning. Be clear, in writing, about the incident or the behavior and how the behavior deviates from your expectations. Always be clear about expectations! Indicate your intentions for future actions using language such as "future deviations from these expectations will result in further disciplinary action", or you may add; "up to and including termination of employment" (depends on how grievous the incident and where you are in the process). You may choose to give 2 or 3 written warnings depending on the circumstances. Have the employee sign the document indicating that they have read and understand it.

Remember that performance evaluations should be consistent with actual behavior. Don’t get caught in the trap of giving an acceptable performance evaluation and having to explain later why it wasn’t valid.

General Documentation

Whenever you start down the path of progressive discipline, keep careful documentation of all incidents, conversations and copies of written warnings pertaining to the situation. Be careful to document facts about the situation (statements made, witnesses to events, actions taken, etc.) and avoid reporting your feelings or making too many judgments in writing. Insure that this type of documentation be stored in an area which is inaccessible to other employees in the department.

Disciplinary checklist

Please see the disciplinary checklist reprinted with permission from the law firm Davis, Wright and Tremaine. This may prove helpful to you if you are considering disciplinary action or termination, or if you are actually working through a disciplinary situation with an employee.


Termination of Employment

As an organization we strive to put people first and therefore do what we can to always insure grace and fairness. Within this context, there will be times when an employee must be terminated. Because the termination will impact the employee significantly and because of the legal complexity surrounding these issues, any termination must first be reviewed by the Director of Human Resources and must be approved by both the area Vice President and the President.

Supervisor’s note: NEVER TERMINATE AN EMPLOYEE ON THE SPOT! There may be a case where an employee does something wrong, and has already been warned, and you are sure the best thing to say at that very moment is "you’re fired... clean out your desk" or "I’d like to see your letter of resignation in the morning". Regardless, you must still review the decision with the HR Director and gain approval from both your Vice President and the President before communicating the final termination decision.  One option open to you while waiting for this approval is to temporarily suspend the employee. Remember, however, that certain wage and hour regulations restrict employers from placing exempt employees on unpaid leave. So if you choose this option, please consult with Human Resources first.

Termination for cause:

The following statement in the Staff Handbook defines termination for cause:

The termination of employment for misconduct. The following is an illustrative but not inclusive list of misconduct: deviation from the University’s Lifestyle expectations policy, violation of the Sexual Harassment Policy; violation of the Nondiscrimination Policy; violation of the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drug Use Policy; violation of the Computer Usage Policy; violation of any other Handbook policy; and any other conduct detrimental to the University, or its reputation, or its operations or activities. Termination for cause may also include termination due to the employee’s unwillingness or inability to adequately perform the employee’s job duties, or for insubordination.

Termination for cause, as defined above, may occur at any time. In the case of termination for cause due to job performance, normally progressive discipline, as defined and implemented by the Disciplinary Action Policy, will have failed to bring about improvements in performance. However, the University is not obligated to follow any specified procedure and may terminate employment immediately for cause.

Supervisor’s note: This policy provides some descriptive language which may help you to decide on an appropriate course of action in a disciplinary situation. Hopefully, the policy will also help employees understand what behaviors are considered unacceptable here at SPU. Again, please proceed down the path of disciplinary action and termination with care, gaining the proper reviews and approvals along the way.

Send mail to womelg@spu.edu with questions or comments about this web site.
Last modified: January 27, 2000