Disciplinary counseling of an employee is one of the most unpleasant but important tasks a manager can perform.

If done properly, counseling can rehabilitate an employee, prevent termination of the employee's employment and avoid legal liability. Having a good form to document the warning is critical to making the disciplinary process work.

While there is no "one size fits all" form to document disciplinary warnings, the best forms have the same essential elements. Even employers who don't have a standard form per se, have a standard format or general outline of topics to be discussed in memos regarding disciplinary issues. These essential elements are outlined in this article.

1. Identifying background information

Disciplinary forms or memos need to begin by providing basic information to identify the employee, the employer, the department or subdivision of the employer, the employee's supervisor or manager and certain background facts.

Background facts may include the employee's date of hire or seniority date, any prior counseling sessions, warnings or disciplinary actions and the status of the employee's employment, particularly if the employee has been suspended or is currently under probation or a performance improvement program.

2. Explanation of the problem, including specific examples

After identifying background information, the form or memo should begin by stating the nature of the problem, regardless of whether it is misconduct, absenteeism, tardiness or poor performance. Ideally, it should state with as much particularity specific examples of the problem.

Where behavior is the issue, the form or memo should identify the words, actions or other objective actions that were a problem. Where absenteeism or tardiness is the issue, the employee should be given specific dates and times and other relevant information that may be applicable to the situation, such as the excuses provided by the employee. Where there are specific performance metrics that are not being met, the employee should be given the actual metrics of poor performance.

Some employers' businesses are so large or routine that they can identify specific acts of misconduct in a "check the box" list. Such a list can be helpful in maintaining and tracking consistency of discipline, if used properly.

The danger of such lists is that most do not include every possible disciplinary situation and users may mischaracterize the nature of an offense to make it fit into one of the categories on the list. If you choose to include such a list on your disciplinary form, make sure to include an inquiry that says: "other: please explain" followed by a couple of blank lines to describe the situation.

3. Changes in employee's performance or behavior that must occur

Another essential element of a good disciplinary form is a precise explanation of what the employee is expected to do (or not do) in the future to meet the employer's expectations. After all, a primary purpose of discipline is to correct inappropriate behavior or underperformance. Without knowing exactly what the employer expects, the employee will have difficulty improving.

4. Employee's response

It is usually helpful for the employer to give the employee an opportunity to admit or deny the employer’s charges of misconduct of poor performance.

Some forms have simply a check the box format that reads: "Employee agrees: Yes __ No __ If employee disagrees, explain reasons." Others may just include room for the employee to include any comments.

Regardless of the exact verbiage or format, having the employee provide a response often helps to foster the dialogue or interchange between the employer and employee and ultimately helps to modify the employee's behavior.

5. Assistance to be provided by the employer

It helps in a disciplinary counseling session if the employer can offer the employee who is being disciplined some assistance to improve. For example, the employer can identify a particular training class or experience or provide an opportunity to shadow or work with another employee who is meeting the employer's expectations.

Such assistance can have the beneficial effect of improving the employee's performance and even provide evidence that the employer was not motivated to terminate the employee for unlawful reasons.

6. Warning of consequences of future problems

Every disciplinary form or memo should contain these "magic" words: "Repetition of this [misconduct/poor performance/attendance/etc.] or failure to follow our normal rules of conduct or meet our standards of performance may result in further disciplinary action, up to and including immediate termination."

If you have a union contract or a contractual commitment to follow a set procedure of progressive discipline, the form or memo should state that the consequence of future violations will be the next most progressive step of discipline (whatever that may be on the applicable procedures).

7. Signatures and dates

Every disciplinary warning should include the actual signature of the employee being disciplined, the supervisor issuing the discipline and, if applicable, any other manager or human resources person who has approved the disciplinary warning, along with dates that they signed the document.

The employee is being asked to sign to acknowledge receipt of the form or memo — not his or her agreement with the discipline. If the employee refuses to sign, simply have another member of management sign and date the form indicating that the employee refused to sign the form but was provided a copy.

8. Supporting documents

If appropriate, documents supporting a disciplinary warning should be attached. For example, copies of a document containing or evidencing errors, an attendance log or time card or a customer complaint about a service issue could be attached to the warning.

Documentation of disciplinary warnings is a necessary process. Having the right form that contains the eight essential elements mentioned in this article can make this process easier and more defensible for employers.