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 becoming increasingly common in the private sector.
There are two major 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 accompanying paperwork. Second, a progressive discipline procedure can change an at-will employment relationship to a contractual one. For example, employee handbooks, company policies, and oral representations have been recognized as comprising components in, or evidence of, an employment contract. This means if a company has a progressive discipline procedure and promises that it will be followed, the company should not stray from it or ignore it.