An at will employee can be legally terminated without following any of the steps of progressive discipline found in the employee handbook or the policies in the employer’s policy book. This is a source of much confusion, especially since the employee is required to follow the rules listed in the employee handbook or the employer can accuse the employee of a serious rule violation.
Unfortunately the law does not require that the employer follow its own rules. However, if the employee files a discrimination complaint, the employer may be required to explain why it ignored its own rules and policies. Even in an action to obtain unemployment benefits, an employer that does not follow its own rules and policies is considered suspect as to the true reason for the termination.
Union contracts and other types of employment contracts usually require certain steps of progressive discipline, except for what are considered to be serious violations.