Massachusetts Discipline laws & HR compliance analysis

Massachusetts Discipline: What you need to know

Progressive discipline is a disciplinary model in which the severity of the punishment increases each time an employee commits an infraction. Generally, the progressive discipline scale starts with an oral reprimand, followed by a written warning, suspension, and finally, termination. Progressive discipline procedures are most often found in collective bargaining agreements and in the public employment arena, but they are also common in the private sector.
There are two potential problems with having a progressive discipline procedure in an "at-will" relationship. First, it can be time-consuming to administer the steps and generate the supporting paperwork. Second, a progressive discipline procedure can, under certain circumstances, transform an at-will employment relationship to a contractual one.
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Massachusetts courts have been cautious about interpreting oral promises as implied contracts. State courts have said that an oral assurance must be definite and specific to constitute a contract. The burden of proof is on the employee to show the existence of an oral contract. Nonetheless, employers should be wary of providing employees with oral guarantees that certain discipline procedures will always be followed.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has said that at-will employment may, under some circumstances, be converted by an implied employment contract that may be terminated only on certain grounds. The court listed certain factors to be used in determining if a manual formed the basis of an employment contract, but said that the most important factor is the answer to the question, "Did the employee have reason to believe that the terms of the contract were ...

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