Human resource management (HRM) is all about optimizing employee performance to make a company more productive. On a day-to-day basis, this means HRM is often tasked with correcting employees’ undesirable behavior and motivating them to behave in accordance with company policies. This can mean using various types of discipline to shape employees’ behavior. Two common types of discipline in HRM are progressive and positive discipline.


Progressive discipline seeks to make violating company policy an unpleasant experience. Positive discipline seeks to eliminate the issues that cause the policy violation.

Types of Discipline in HRM

Discipline strategies used in human resource management can be divided into two categories: negative discipline and positive discipline. Negative discipline is the use of consequences to deter employees from undesirable behaviors, while positive discipline is the use of incentives to push employees toward desired behaviors. There is a significant difference between positive discipline and negative discipline in HRM.

Progressive discipline is typically associated with negative discipline, but it is important to understand that the two are not the same. Rather, they are two distinct forms of discipline that human resource departments can use to guide employees toward desired behavior.

The purpose of positive discipline is to eliminate the issues that cause employees to violate company policy, whereas the purpose of progressive discipline is to make violating company policy such an unpleasant experience that the employee permanently changes his behavior. Negative discipline is simply the imposition of an unpleasant consequence, which may or may not be imposed progressively.

Types of Negative Discipline 

Common types of negative discipline that may be used as part of a progressive discipline approach include:

  • Pay cuts
  • Verbal warnings
  • Written reprimands
  • Suspension 
  • Removal from a specific project
  • Retraining
  • Demotion 
  • Termination

An important difference between positive discipline and negative discipline in HRM is the use of incentives. With negative discipline, the employee’s incentive to comply with company policy is avoiding punishment. With positive discipline, incentives may be offered for an employee’s continued compliance. For example, an employer might reward teams who complete a fiscal quarter with no safety violations with a pizza party or additional paid time off.

Progressive Discipline Becomes Progressively More Severe

The progressive discipline approach is based on the idea that employees who habitually misbehave need to face consistent consequences in order to change their actions. For example, an employee who is habitually late for work might first face a verbal warning and then a written warning to be included in her employee record. If she continues to be late, she may face pay docking, suspension and eventually termination.

Positive Discipline Addresses a Problem’s Cause

The core of the positive discipline approach is cooperation between the employee and his employer. Rather than imposing consequences, positive discipline aims to prevent undesirable behavior by eliminating the factors that lead to it. Generally, this starts with a discussion between the employee and his supervisor where the supervisor highlights the employee’s strengths and contributions to the team. If there is a problem that needs to be addressed with the employee, this discussion also involves the supervisor asking the employee about the problem.

An example of taking a positive disciplinary approach to handling an issue is asking an employee why he is habitually late for work. The employee might have a valid reason for his tardiness, such as having to wait until his children’s school bus picks them up before he can leave for work. He might not have a valid reason and instead say that he tends to oversleep or that he underestimates the traffic on the way to work.

In either scenario, this discussion opens up an opportunity for the supervisor and employee to brainstorm solutions together, such as adjusting his start time to allow him to see his kids off to school or setting up alarms that get him out of his house on time.

Progressive Discipline Is Imposed on Employees

The progressive discipline approach can be seen as a series of ultimatums: If the employee does not improve her sales by the end of the quarter, she faces a pay cut. If her sales remain below a defined threshold through the next quarter, she faces demotion. Instead of being a standard to aspire toward, as a positive discipline approach creates for employees, progressive discipline is the imposition of increasingly unpleasant circumstances from which they cannot opt out.

Positive Discipline Requires Employee Involvement 

By approaching a compliance issue as a discussion rather than an accusation of wrongdoing, an employer frames the problem as an issue the employee and the employer can resolve by working together. This removes blame from the equation, which can remove feelings of embarrassment and shame on the employee’s part.

A performance improvement plan is a discipline strategy that incorporates negative and positive discipline to direct an employee toward improved behavior. A performance improvement plan starts with a discussion about the employee’s problem and how he needs to change his behavior if he wants to remain in his current position with the company.

The plan itself is a document that lays out actionable steps he can take to improve his performance. This plan can include incentives for reaching specific goals as well as the consequences for failing to meet them.

When Positive Discipline Is Appropriate

Positive discipline is often the ideal choice at the first sign of an employee’s noncompliance. An employee who suddenly stops meeting deadlines or whose communications with clients fall off may be best served by a discussion with her supervisor about why she is falling behind.

Talking about the issue can help her supervisor take necessary actions to help the employee resolve it, like adding another support role to that employee’s team or reassigning a few of her clients to another employee.

By making the disciplinary action a discussion rather than a punishment, the supervisor can resolve the problem without making the employee feel resentful, ashamed or like she has been placed under additional pressure to succeed.

Where Progressive Discipline Is Appropriate

Progressive discipline is appropriate when the employee continually violates company policy in the same way. For example, this might be habitually coming back late from lunch breaks, continually failing to report accidents or use appropriate safety equipment or being caught using his phone during work hours on a regular basis.

For an employee who knows he is violating company policy and chooses to continue to violate it, progressive discipline is a way for his employer to communicate that his actions are unacceptable.

Determining the Right Type of Discipline for a Situation

For some situations, positive discipline is the ideal way to bring an employee into compliance with company policies. In others, the progressive use of negative discipline is a better choice. The right type of discipline for a specific situation is not always clear, and in some cases, an employee benefits from a mixed-discipline approach. When choosing which of the types of discipline in HRM to employ, a supervisor should determine whether the employee understands that she is violating company policy.

In a situation where an employee consistently wastes time checking social media during business hours, a progressive discipline approach might initially seem like the right way to make her stop wasting company time. But instead of strictly punishing her, the supervisor might reach the desired outcome quicker by incorporating positive discipline and explaining how her excessive social media use slows down workflow and causes her colleagues to miss deadlines.