Immediate, Significant, and Sustained

Steven Cesare, Ph.D.


A landscaper from Virginia called me the other day to talk about applying corrective discipline to his employees.  Frequently confronted with ongoing employee performance issues, the landscaper has become frustrated with the recidivism of his employees’ poor performance implying a lack of professional stature, work ethic, and personal pride, let alone their diminishing respect for the landscaper whom they believe is “all bark and no bite” in that they know he will not terminate them due to the staffing shortage.

Lack of accountability is bad.  A lack of respect is worse.

Sing it, Aretha!

Aside from implementing a continuous recruitment program, I suggested the landscaper begin taking a more deliberate approach to employee documentation, in that, if and when, employees are terminated, and their inevitable claims of wrongful termination are filed against the landscaper, his improved documentation process will carry sufficient legal weight capable of defending the termination decision successfully.

To that end, I told the landscaper that I have been informed on multiple occasions by legal counsel that all performance documentation must contain three essential words:  immediate, significant, and sustained.

I realize these terms and the purpose for which they are used, may seem childish, petty, or frivolous to you.  That truth is more emblematic of the current workforce, litigious work environment, and nature of employee disciplinary practices than it is of a supervisor’s inability to hold employees accountable to performance goals.  

Thus, when documenting an employee’s substandard performance, I strongly recommend the following terminology be included on the company Corrective Discipline Form:  

“I acknowledge that I must demonstrate immediate, significant, and sustained improvement in this area to improve my performance to a satisfactory level.  Failure to meet that standard and/or further violation(s) may result in subsequent discipline, including possible termination of employment.”

Here is what the lawyers keep telling me.

Immediate. Without including the word “immediate,” an employee could say, “Oh.  You wanted me to improve right away?  I thought I was supposed to show improvement beginning next pay period.”  The word “immediate” specifies the employee’s performance must begin now, thereby forestalling the feigned excuse of delayed improvement due to verbal ambiguity, solely intended to discredit the supervisor’s role.

Significant. Without including the word “significant,” an employee could say, “Oh.  What do you mean?  I have improved!  You just have not noticed!”  Let’s be clear:  Improving from 4 tardiness incidents a month to 3, or decreasing the hourly overtime percentage from 12% to 11.85% is essentially imperceptible; not “significant.”  The performance improvement must be tangible for the supervisor to track progress, not be parsed by the employee in yet another adolescent attempt to undermine the supervisor’s authority.

Sustained. Without including the word “sustained,” the employee could say, “Oh.  You wanted me to continue my performance improvement?  I thought you only wanted me to demonstrate improvement for the next week (pay period, month, etc.).”  Another example of veiled contempt.  Thus, the use of “sustained,” clarifies the employee must maintain the performance improvement, without fail, from this point forward. 

These three words, stated pre-emptively, minimize the onset of potential lies, game-playing, and excuses that employees frequently invoke to position themselves as victims while mocking their supervisors.

Just in case you forgot:  She said it is spelled R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

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Steve Cesare Ph.D.

has more than 25 years of Human Resources experience. Prior to joining The Harvest Group, Steve worked with Bemus Landscape, Jack in the Box, the County of San Diego, Citicorp, and NASA. Steve earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University, and has authored 68 human resources journal articles. As a member of The Harvest Group, Steve’s areas of expertise include: staffing, legal compliance, wage and hour issues, training, and employee safety.  Read Steve's full bio.