Does my workplace have to follow its progressive discipline policy?

You likely work someplace with a progressive discipline policy. This is a form of disciplinary policy where the penalty increases with each occurrence. Usually there are a series of warnings, then suspension, then termination. Oftentimes the progression is verbal warning, first written warning, second written warning, suspension, then finally termination.

Progressive discipline policies are normally used to make sure that the rules are enforced fairly. It gives managers guidance regarding how they should respond to certain behaviors. In addition, it gives employees an idea of what discipline they can expect for the behaviors, and what the consequences of breaking the rules are. Progressive discipline policies often spell out exactly what behaviors violate company policy. They are useful tools for both employers and employees.

Just because your employer has a progressive discipline policy does not mean that you have to be given a warning instead of being terminated when you violate company policy. Some behaviors may be severe enough that they require either immediate suspension or termination, such as theft.
But does your employer have to follow this policy every time? What happens if your employer does not follow the policy and fires you for a small infraction without warning?

Unless you have an employment contract, your employer can probably fire you without following the policy. Most employees in the United States are at-will, which means that either the employer or the employee can terminate the employment relationship without penalty. Without an employment contract, the progressive discipline policy will not stop your employer from firing you.
An issue arises when your employer enforces the progressive discipline policy unfairly and unequally based on protected characteristics. Federal law protects people from being fired for certain characteristics, such as age, disability, race, sex, national identity, and religion. Some states protect people from being fired for their sexual orientation as well. If you feel as though the policy was enforced against employees based on these characteristics, your employer may have violated the law.

Not following a progressive discipline policy also becomes an issue regarding unemployment. In Pennsylvania, unemployment compensation will not be awarded when the employer can prove that the employee committed willful misconduct. If you violated your employer’s policy, there is a possibility that you will not receive unemployment benefits.

There are some defenses to an accusation of willful misconduct, however, and some of those are based on the employer not following the progressive discipline policy. If an employer does not enforce a progressive discipline policy equally against all employees, the employee can argue that he or she was unfairly targeted or that they were not given effective notice that they would be disciplined for a behavior when he or she knows other employees have not been. A second defense would be that the employer’s progressive disciplinary policy spells out a certain punishment for a certain behavior, and you are fired for that behavior instead of the defined punishment, you may be able to collect unemployment benefits.