Disciplinary Alternatives

When deciding what disciplinary action to take, keep in mind that discipline is supposed to be constructive. Your goal is to guide the employee to correct performance or behavior, not to punish the employee. As a general rule, your action should be just enough to get the employee's attention. However, you may have to take progressively more serious actions if there is no improvement or if repeat occurrences follow. You need not take each of these actions, but you will normally take more than one of them. Your alternatives are:

Oral Warning:

  • Set a time and place to ensure privacy.
  • Make notes about what you want to say in advance.
  • Remember that the employee has a right to choose representation.
  • State clearly that you are issuing an oral warning.
  • Be specific in describing the unacceptable performance or behavior.
  • Remind the employee of the acceptable standards or rules. If they are available in writing, provide them to the employee.
  • State the consequences of failure to demonstrate immediate and sustained improvement: Further disciplinary action may be the result.
  • Note the oral warning on your calendar.

Written Warning:

If you gave an oral warning and the problem performance or behavior persists, a written warning may be effective. You may decide to use this disciplinary action more than once, to get the employee's attention. Be careful, however, not to get stuck issuing repetitive letters of warning that fail to influence the employee's behavior or performance.

  • State clearly at the outset of the letter that it is a written warning, and cite the appropriate personnel policy or contract provision.
  • Describe the performance problem(s) or work rule violation(s) in very specific detail and attach documents which support your conclusions.
  • Outline previous steps taken to acquaint the employee with the issue (coaching sessions, performance appraisals, previous disciplinary actions) and attach copies of the documents you refer to.
  • Describe the impact of the problem (safety issues, need to reassign work).
  • Note the employee's explanation (as revealed during your investigation) or that the employee declined to offer one. If it was unacceptable, explain why.
  • Reiterate your expectations regarding behavior and/or performance.
  • Note that if the employee doesn't demonstrate immediate and sustained improvement, the consequence will be further disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.
  • Refer the employee to the appropriate policy or contract provision for appeal rights.
  • Deliver the warning letter to the employee and place it in the employee's departmental personnel file using appropriate delivery procedures such as "Proof of Service." (See Sample Proof of Service Form in Chapter 23, Separations <hard copies of the Guide only>.)

Sample Letter of Warning (Word)

Suspension without Pay:

This is normally the next stage in progressive discipline after written warning(s)

Suspension typically prevents work for one to ten working days, as specified in the letter, and pay is docked accordingly.

Length of a suspension without pay will be influenced by policy or contract requirements.

The letter states that it is a suspension without pay, the appropriate policy or contract provision, and the number of days the employee will be suspended. It also (as with a letter of warning) describes the problem, previous corrective measures, impact of the problem, your expectations, consequences of failure to improve, and the employee's appeal rights.

Depending upon the personnel program the employee belongs to, you may be required to issue a letter of intent to suspend, which provides the employee with the right to appeal your intended action to the next higher management level before the action is implemented. Consult your Employee Relations Consultant as well as the policy or contract for more information.

Reduction of Pay within a Class:

This alternative is normally used when you do not wish to remove the employee from the work site, but serious discipline is appropriate. It is a popular alternative, in lieu of suspension without pay, in cases of chronic absenteeism or tardiness.

The reduction of pay is for a specific period of time, related to the seriousness of the performance discrepancy or work rule violation, and noted in the letter.

The disciplinary letter will incorporate the same elements included in a suspension letter.

You may have to issue a letter of intent similar to that used in cases of suspension. Your Employee Relations Consultant will explain the procedure to you.

Demotion to a Lower Classification:

This action involves movement of an employee to a lower level position, and may be temporary or permanent. (Note: A demotion is a disciplinary action; a downward reclassification is not a disciplinary action.)

Demotion is most often appropriate in cases of inadequate performance of responsibilities at a particular level, rather than violation of work rules. It should be based upon a reasonable expectation that the employee will perform successfully in the lower classified position. For example, did the employee previously hold a similar position, and did he perform satisfactorily?

Your notice letter and process are quite similar to those used for a suspension without pay, or a reduction of pay within class. Contact your Employee Relations Consultant if you are considering this disciplinary alternative.

See: Notice of Intent to Demote and Letter of Demotion (After Reviewer has Responded).


This alternative is normally selected after performance counseling and progressive discipline have failed to get the employee's attention to the problem.

In extreme cases, such as job abandonment, theft, or an act that endangers others, the offense may be so grave that progressive discipline is not necessary.

See Chapter 23, Separations - Dismissal for more detailed information on dismissing an employee.

The disciplinary actions most commonly employed on the Berkeley campus are written warnings and suspensions without pay. The concept of progressive discipline does not require that you use all the actions described above, but you will usually be expected to use more than one type in your attempt to correct the employee's performance or behavioral problems, because discipline should normally be progressive.

As a supervisor, it is perfectly natural for you to feel frustrated or angry when an employee repeatedly fails to perform satisfactorily or follow the rules. Keep in mind, however, that most employees come to work wanting to do a good job. Some will require more specific and frequent feedback than others to understand what that means in your work site and in the jobs under your supervision. Frequency of feedback will largely depend on what you observe in the employee's behavior and performance and on the cycles of the work (e.g., tardiness can be corrected immediately, but it may take days or weeks to complete a particular project or task for your review).

Remember that the purpose of disciplinary action is to turn performance around by continuing to identify problems, causes, and solutions. If you can accomplish it in a positive and constructive way, you will send a message that you are out not to punish, but to help the employee become a fully productive member of your work unit.