North Carolina Discipline laws & HR compliance analysis

North Carolina Discipline: What you need to know

Progressive discipline is a policy in which the severity of the penalty increases each time an employee commits an infraction. Generally, a progressive discipline scale begins with oral reprimands, followed by written warnings, suspensions, and, finally, discharge. Progressive discipline procedures are most often found in collective bargaining agreements and in the public sector, but they are becoming increasingly common in the private sector.
There are two major problems with having a progressive discipline procedure in an "at-will" employment relationship. First, it can be time-consuming to administer the steps and generate all the accompanying paperwork. Second, a progressive discipline procedure can, under certain circumstances, transform an otherwise at-will employment relationship into a contractual one.
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Many employee handbooks provide for formal levels of progressive discipline leading up to discharge. North Carolina courts recognize claims for breach of implied contract based on a handbook provision containing explicit contractual language or, in the case of a discharge in violation of an oral promise, if the promise was supported by consideration and relied on by the employee (Salt v. Applied Analytical, Inc., 1412 SE2d 97 (1991)).
Thus, a handbook should not contain language promising that disciplinary procedures will always be followed or that employees will be terminated only for just cause. Rather, a handbook should contain language stating that the disciplinary procedures are merely guidelines and that the employer may deviate from the procedure at any time and take actions as it sees fit, including immediately terminating an employee. Such disclaimers will help ...

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