What is progressive discipline?

Progressive discipline is a system of discipline where the penalties increase upon repeat occurrences. The concept is embedded in schedule 8 of the Labour Relations Act which states:

“The courts have endorsed the concept of corrective or progressive discipline.

This approach regards the purpose of discipline as a means for employees to know and understand what standards are required of them. Efforts should be made to correct employees’ behaviour through a system of graduated disciplinary measures such as counselling and warnings.

Formal procedures do not have to be invoked every time a rule is broken or a standard is not met. Informal advice and correction is the best and most effective way for an employer to deal with minor violations of work discipline. Repeated misconduct will warrant warnings, which themselves may be graded according to degrees of severity. More serious infringements or repeated misconduct may call for a final warning, or other action short of dismissal. Dismissal should be reserved for cases of serious misconduct or repeated offences.”

Progressive discipline ranges from written warnings, final written warnings, and ultimately, dismissal. All these “sanctions short of dismissal” could be applicable to various types of misconduct. It is a form of rehabilitation and a system in which employees are encouraged to correct their behaviour, rather than proceeding to immediate dismissal of those employees.


The purpose of a disciplinary code and procedure is to regulate standards of conduct of employees within a company or organisation. The aim of a workplace disciplinary code is to provide mechanisms to correct unacceptable behaviour and to create certainty and consistency in the application of discipline. Disciplinary procedures need to be fair.  Disciplinary procedures may also be included in a collective agreement.

Parties’ Obligations

The employer needs to ascertain that all employees are aware of the rules and the reasonable standards of behaviour that are expected of them in the workplace.

The employee needs to comply with the disciplinary code and procedures at the workplace. The employee also needs to ensure that he/she is familiar with the requirements in terms of the disciplinary standards in the workplace.

Counselling versus disciplinary action

There is a difference between disciplinary action and counselling. Counselling will be appropriate where the employee is not performing to the required standard or is not aware of a rule regulating conduct and/or where the breach of the rule is relatively minor and can be condoned.

Disciplinary action will be appropriate where a breach of the rule cannot be condoned, or where counselling has failed to achieve the desired effect.

Before deciding on the form of discipline, management must meet the employee in order to explain the nature of the rule s/he is alleged to have breached. The employee should also be given the opportunity to respond and explain his/her conduct.

Forms of discipline

Disciplinary action can take a number of forms, depending on the seriousness of the offence and whether the employee has breached the particular rule before. The following forms of discipline can be used (in order of severity):

  • Verbal warning;
  • Written warning;
  • Final written warning;
  • Suspension without pay (for a limited period);
  • Demotion, as an alternative to dismissal only; or
  • Dismissal

The employer should establish how serious an offence is, with reference to the disciplinary rules. If the offence is not very serious, informal disciplinary action can be taken by giving an employee a verbal or written warning. The law does not specify that employees should receive any specific number of warnings, and dismissal could be an appropriate sanction for a first offence in the case of serious misconduct, such as gross dishonesty, assault and gross insubordination. Employers should however apply progressive disciplinary measures for offences that are not serious enough for dismissal for a first offence.

Depending on an employer’s policy, written warnings will usually remain valid for 3 to 6 months, and final written warnings for 12 months. A warning for one type of contravention is not applicable to another type of offence. In other words, a first written warning for late-coming should not lead to a second written warning for insubordination. Progressive discipline means that an employee who commits the same or similar offence after receiving a disciplinary sanction should be subject to the next level of disciplinary action. Note, however, that the sanctions of suspension without pay and demotion are exceptional steps and would not necessarily constitute a required disciplinary step. Thus an employee who receives a final written warning for a particular offence will normally be dismissed if he/she commits the same offence again within the period of validity of the warning.

Employees will be requested to sign warning letters and will be given an opportunity to state their objections, should there be any. Should an employee refuse to sign a warning letter, this does not make the warning invalid. A witness will be requested to sign the warning, stating that the employee refused acceptance of the warning. Depending on the employer’s policy, employees may be entitled to appeal against a warning (or other disciplinary sanction) and in the absence of an appeal process they may refer a dispute to the CCMA or bargaining council having jurisdiction.

Dismissal is reserved for the most serious offences and must be preceded by a fair disciplinary enquiry, unless an exceptional circumstance results in a disciplinary enquiry becoming either an impossibility (e.g. the employee absconded and never returned) or undesirable (e.g. holding an enquiry will endanger life or property).

Source: Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA)

To ensure you always follow the correct procedure, please contact the Cofesa helpline

011 679 4373 | 082 656 4957 | etienne@cofesa.co.za

The information and material published on this website is provided for general purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. We make every effort to ensure that the content is updated regularly and to offer the most current and accurate information. Please contact one of our consultants on any specific labour problem or matter. We accept no responsibility for any loss or damage, whether direct or consequential, which may arise from reliance on the information contained in these pages.