Progressive discipline is a system in which the severity of the discipline 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 found in the private sector.
There are two major issues 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, change an at-will employment relationship to a contractual one, whether or not the policy is written. Employee handbooks, company policy, and oral representations have all been recognized as evidence of an implied employment contract.