Positive Discipline

Although the university is an at-will employer and may terminate the employment relationship at any time and for any reason, our employment policy, as stated in the Staff Handbook, is “designed to give each employee a full opportunity for ... success”. To this end, the university uses a positive discipline process to address job-related behavior that does not meet expected and communicated performance standards.

Performance Improvement: The goal of the positive discipline process is to improve performance by helping the employee understand that a performance problem or opportunity for improvement exists. Positive discipline is most successful when it assists an individual to become an effective member of the university. Failing that, positive discipline enables the organization to fairly, and with substantial documentation, terminate the employment of employees who are unable or unwilling to improve.

NOTE: While the components of positive discipline may appear to be "progressive", where one action must come before another, managers should not interpret this guidance to require that each and every situation must follow the same progression. Some circumstances may require more severe discipline, up to and including discharge, while a progressive approach is appropriate for other situations.

Contact HR: Managers are encouraged to consult with HR Employee Relations or HR Business Partners when considering the discipline of an employee.

The university's positive discipline system includes the following components: 

Communicating Expectations

Most would agree that it is unreasonable to hold someone accountable for what they don't know. Managers must clearly communicate expectations and requirements to employees during the probationary period and whenever there are changes.

Performance expectations generally fall into one or more of the following categories:

  • Quality: How well an activity is performed or to what standard the task is completed.
  • Quantity: How much or how many are produced or performed.
  • Timeliness: How quickly a result is produced or performed.
  • Manner: The way or style in which a task is performed or produced.
  • Method: The policies, procedures and technical considerations applied to the task.
  • Cost: The effective use of resources to complete a task.

Work requirements often speak to the manner in which work is done and reflects the organization's values. As examples, customer service, accountability, and respect will be values for all staff functions within the University.

Verbal Reminder

This step is usually undertaken to counsel the employee about performance and to determine his or her understanding of work requirements.

In issuing a verbal reminder, the supervisor will:

  • Privately inform the employee of the specific performance deficiency.
  • Provide feedback and expectations for improvement.
  • Offer additional training when warranted.

An employee receiving a verbal reminder is expected to:

  • Correct the deficiency.
  • Ask for feedback from their supervisor, when needed.
  • Sustain improvement over time.

Documentation of verbal reminder

  • Document the content of the discussion
  • Ask the employee to sign a copy of the meeting notes to confirm that they received a copy
  • Give the employee a copy of the documentation
  • Maintain a copy of the written notes and the employee's confirmation of receipt in the supervisor's file.

The template for documenting a verbal reminder may be found in the below section.

Written Reminder

Generally, the verbal reminder outlines the problem and the corrective measures that the employee is expected to take.  This discussion should also include a warning that points out the consequences to the employee should they fail to comply with the corrective measures discussed. 

If, after the verbal reminder stage, the employee’s performance is still not acceptable, a written reminder may be warranted, formalizing a discussion between a supervisor and an employee about a performance deficiency.

  • Clearly identifies the problem.
  • Outlines the corrective measures that the employee had agreed to take.
  • Refers to the previous discussion with the employee.
  • Is concise and specific about the poor performance.
  • Reiterates the acceptable performance levels.
  • Sets a reasonable deadline for the expected level of improvement by the employee.
  • Contains a strong warning stating that failure of the employee to bring their performance up to the acceptable level within the time frame, will result in further action, up to and including termination.

The written reminder does not contain negative generalizations about the employee’s character nor should it contain any language that may be construed as offensive or insulting. 

Documentation of Written Reminder

  • Ask the employee to sign a copy of the written reminder to confirm that s/he has received, read, discussed, and understood it.
  • Give the employee a copy of the written reminder.
  • Place a copy of the written reminder and the employee's confirmation of receipt in the employee's departmental personnel file.
  • Send a copy of the written reminder and the employee's confirmation of receipt to hrbp@ou.edu.

The template for documenting the written reminder may be found in the below section.

Disciplinary Leave of Absence

Disciplinary leave with or without pay is usually taken after unsatisfactory performance has not been corrected following the application of an oral and written reminder. It may also be taken as a first and final step before discharge in the event of a major offense.

An employee returning to work following disciplinary leave must agree to work in a manner that includes following rules and regulations and correcting unsatisfactory performance.

Reference: Staff Handbook, Section 3.20, Disciplinary Leave

Decision-making leave

As decision-making leave, the employee is given disciplinary leave with pay to decide if s/he wants to continue to work for the University given the standard of performance or behavior that is expected.

  • The employee is asked to return with a decision about his/her future.
  • If the employee returns and is committed to making the necessary changes, time is given for him or her to do so.
  • If the employee does not want to make the commitment, s/he may decide to quit or the University may start the termination process.

Documentation of decision-making leave

  • Written notice requiring the employee to take a decision-making leave is addressed to the employee and copies placed or sent to
    • employee's departmental file
    • Human Resources, Attention: Employee Relations
    • Senior Vice-Provost's Office [Academic Services employees, Norman campus]
  • A summary of the employee's decision, upon return to work.
  • If the employee chooses to return to work, s/he must agree to complete the goals and expectations agreed to by the employee and supervisor, along with the time commitment for their accomplishment. Click here for a sample Employee Response to Decision Making Leave.
  • If the employee does not commit to improving or fails to complete the required form, start the termination process and document all actions taken. For more information about the termination process, see the Discharge section.


Suspension is normally disciplinary leave without pay. The supervisor will prepare a letter of suspension which includes:

  • The length of the suspension
  • The date on which the employee may return to work
  • Restate the contents of the written reminder with any new relevant information
  • State the consequences of not making the necessary changes upon return to the job

Documentation of suspension

  • Ask the employee to sign a copy of the letter of suspension confirming that s/he has received, read, discussed and understood the suspension
  • Give the employee a copy of the letter of suspension
  • Place a copy of the letter of suspension and the employee's confirmation of receipt in the employee's personnel file.

The Letter Template Library has sample letters for decision-making leave and disciplinary leave.


While not a step in the positive discipline process, termination may be warranted when positive steps have been used but performance has not changed or when an employee has committed a major offense including, but not limited to, falsification of records, stealing, disruptive behavior, insubordination, threatening or committing an act of violence, and/or violation of the Policy on Prevention of Alcohol Abuse and Drug Use on Campus and in the Workplace.

Terminations of employees will be reviewed by the appropriate executive officer or delegate before becoming final.

Supervisors are encouraged to consult with their HR Employee Relations or HR Business Partners when considering termination.

Termination meeting

Termination can be very difficult for the employee and requires confidentiality, respect, and compassion on the part of the supervisor.

The steps to be taken on the day that an employee is notified of his or her termination should be carefully planned.

Where: Choose the location for the termination meeting carefully.

  • Select a location which provides privacy and allows the terminated employee to exit without the embarrassment of facing other staff
  • Choose a neutral site such as a meeting room rather than your office, if possible

When: If possible, be sensitive to issues and important dates in the employee's life and choose a day that will minimize stress on the employee.

  • Avoid holidays and vacations
  • Avoid Fridays - if an employee is terminated on a Friday, this prevents the employee from obtaining legal advice or counseling before the weekend and leaves him/her with the whole weekend to worry and build up anger about the situation.
  • Terminate near the end of the day when other employees have left and therefore embarrassment to the employee is minimized.

What: Collect/prepare the necessary documents in advance.

  • Letter of termination which states the date upon which it takes effect

How: Be brief and get to the point.

  • Explain the situation
  • Avoid emotional, personal and other inappropriate remarks
  • Review the termination letter with the employee and clarify, as requested, but do not argue
  • Ensure that the employee returns the university's property
  • Explain the next step - where the person should go after the meeting, how to gather his/her personal belongings, and so forth
  • Respond to threats of legal action by acknowledging that seeking counsel is within the employee's rights

Documentation of employee discharge

  • A copy of the written notice of termination is sent to Human Resources. The Letter Template Library includes sample termination letters.

The following  may not apply in every situation, but it is appropriate for a manager to evaluate an employee's record as objectively as possible by asking these or similar questions. 

  1. Has critical information been reduced to writing and placed in the employee’s file?
  2. Is the employee’s misconduct or performance problem clearly described in a specific, factual manner?
  3. Was the employee clearly informed of required behavior and performance standards?
  4. Does the record progress from mild, early warnings to more serious, comprehensive documentation?
  5. Was the employee given reasonable assistance and direction by management?
  6. Has the employee had reasonable time and a fair opportunity to improve? Generally this could be 30 to 90 days, depending on the situation.
  7. Is the performance or conduct sufficiently persistent and serious to warrant the proposed disciplinary action?
  8. Have procedural requirements for documentation been met?
  9. Has the employee been given fair warning of the consequences of his continued poor conduct or performance?
  10. Is the planned discipline consistent with that taken in similar situations within your department?  Within the campus? Within the university? Are there any extenuating circumstances that would warrant a different response?


Documentation of discipline is not an exercise in tact and diplomacy. Communicating gaps between expectations and actual performance should be
  1. direct
  2. factual
  3. focused on behavior or performance rather than on the person
General statements, such as "The employee is always late" are difficult to substantiate.

A record of the dates the employee was late and the times the employee arrived is much more useful in documenting the extent of the problem and why correction is required.

"Edna has a bad attitude" is a conclusion.

The facts are

  1. On April 3, Edna told her supervisor that she "would not" follow a directive to train a new employee on the scheduling system.
  2. On the morning of May 5, the supervisor overheard a phone conversation in which Edna told a client that she "didn't care whether [client] ever came back to this office for service."

"James appeared intoxicated" is a conclusion.

The facts are

  1. James staggered as he walked.
  2. James' speech was slurred and difficult to understand.
  3. There was a strong odor of alcohol.
Avoid these common errors in discipline documentation:
  1. misspelled words, incorrect grammar and punctuation
  2. incorrect dates and times
  3. inaccurate, incomplete descriptions of misconduct or poor performance
  4. wrong names
  5. wrong rule or policy citations
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  • Norman: HR Employee Relations, 405-325-1826, NEL 253 
  • OKC Campus: HR Employee Relations, 405-271-2194, Suite 270 
  • Tulsa: Office of Human Resources, 918-660-3190, Room 3C24
  • All campus email: hrbp@ou.edu