Disciplinary procedures

Understanding disciplinary procedures and how to handle them in the workplace

First published on Friday, Feb 26, 2021

Last updated on Wednesday, Jun 26, 2024

You work hard to make sure all your employees are happy and productive at work. But sometimes, an employee's behaviour can throw a wrench in the whole operation.

When this happens, having a disciplinary procedure in place can make it easier to handle misconduct and outline what might happen as a result. It's important not to skip any of the steps in the procedure, as this could result in costly penalties or employment tribunals.

At work, a formal disciplinary procedure is a way to officially address an employee's improper behaviour. Any unacceptable behaviour can result in a loss of productivity and profits at your company, from neglect of their own work to gross negligence.

Before understanding how to handle them, knowing what constitutes disciplinary issues and what disciplinary action you can take is important.

What are disciplinary issues?

Defining workplace disciplinary issues can be a complicated matter, but they usually involve cases of employee misconduct. This refers to any inappropriate action by an employee that violates your workplace rules.

Addressing misconduct can prove challenging, as the appropriate course of action may differ depending on the severity of the situation. You should identify what you consider to be inappropriate behaviour and whether it requires further disciplinary action.

Minor misconduct

There're countless actions that could be considered minor misconduct, but it's important to consider the following examples:

  • Poor performance
  • Using inappropriate language
  • Wearing incorrect or inappropriate clothing
  • Persistent lateness and unauthorised absence
  • Misuse of computer equipment, emails, and internet
  • Failure to follow instructions from a manager or supervisor (insubordination)

Gross misconduct

Much like minor misconduct, there's an extensive list of actions that can be considered gross misconduct. These examples are certain circumstances that most businesses would treat as gross misconduct:

  • Theft or fraud
  • Violence while at work
  • Discrimination or harassment
  • Misuse of confidential information
  • A serious breach of health and safety rules
  • Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol while at work

It's worth noting that some forms of gross misconduct can merit immediate termination without notice, this is called summary dismissal.

Regardless of the severity of the misconduct, in most cases, employee misconduct will require you to take corrective disciplinary action.

Two people meeting over a disciplinary

What is disciplinary action?

There're various forms of disciplinary action that you can take when responding to employee misconduct. This may involve reprimands or corrective measures to address issues such as rule violations, poor performance, or improper behaviour.

While the forms of disciplinary action can vary, it's important to distinguish between informal and formal actions and respond accordingly to each.

Informal disciplinary actions

It's advisable to start with informal actions when addressing minor misconduct because less time is consumed when you deal with the matter informally. And it may be enough to resolve the issue without taking formal disciplinary action.

A verbal warning is usually the first stage of formal disciplinary action. This could be an informal discussion that does not require you to keep a written record—but it is advisable to in case it happens again. If there is further misconduct you may have to perform formal actions.

Formal disciplinary actions

For more serious misconduct you should use formal disciplinary actions, these include:

  • Verbal and written warnings: unlike informal actions, you need to make a written record of all formal warnings. From initial verbal warning to final written warning.
  • Performance improvement plan: less severe misconduct may call for an improvement plan.
  • Loss of position or privileges: a recently promoted employee may face demotion, and a lesser penalty may be a loss of privileges, such as bonus pay or special parking permits.
  • Loss of salary: like a loss of privileges, more serious misconduct may call for a reduced salary. However, if this is done as a disciplinary decision, it would need to be specified in your policy. As you could be at risk of unlawful deduction from wages or a breach of contract.
  • Dismissal: for severe or gross misconduct, you may terminate an employee’s employment. If due to gross misconduct, these actions don’t always require written warnings.

In summary, you have diverse options at your disposal to address any unacceptable or improper behaviour from your employees.

With these disciplinary actions in mind, it's important to remember that you should put your disciplinary procedures in writing. This should include a written statement with clear steps for each stage of the disciplinary process and be easily accessible to all employees.

Person with a box of his stuff that's just been sacked after a disciplinary

How to Create a Disciplinary Policy

It's important to create a comprehensive policy that your employees and managers can refer to for guidance. Written company policies, rules, and expectations ensure that everyone is aware of what is expected of them in the workplace.

Without clear guidelines, disciplinary policies become ineffective as employees may not be aware of what warrants disciplinary action.

While the content of your disciplinary policy depends on several factors, there're two key components you should address:

  • Formal and informal warnings.
  • Disciplinary meetings and actions.

You may create your own disciplinary procedures from scratch or use a disciplinary policy template. When creating your own procedure, you should follow the ACAS code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures, to ensure fair disciplinary procedures are put in place.

What are the UK laws on fair disciplinary procedures?

You should comply with the ACAS code of practice. The Code of Practice provides a set of guidelines for handling any disciplinary matter. You could already have a disciplinary procedure in place. However, it should be in accordance with ACAS's basic principles.

Although it's not legally mandated to follow the Code, it's essential for all employers to establish a fair procedure. According to the Employment Rights Act 1996, failure to do so will result in an employment tribunal claim.

How to make sure your disciplinary procedure is fair

When it comes to conducting disciplinary procedures at work, it's crucial to approach them with great care and attention. This is necessary to safeguard your business against any potential tribunal claims.

By following the five steps outlined below, you can make sure your disciplinary procedure is conducted in a fair and legally compliant manner.

5 steps for a fair and formal disciplinary process:

Step 1 - Disciplinary investigation

The disciplinary investigation process aims to investigate allegations or reports made against an employee; this can involve investigatory meetings.

Step 2 - Written communication

This is a notice for a disciplinary hearing. It will outline the meeting schedule and necessary actions for employees. It should include allegations and supporting written evidence.

Step 3 - Disciplinary hearing

This is a disciplinary meeting, in which you should present evidence and accounts relating to the allegation. The employee should present their own evidence and has the right to be accompanied by a colleague or trade union representative.

Step 4 - Disciplinary decision

After all the evidence and testimonies have been presented, it's time for you to pass the disciplinary decision. Examples of this would be no action, verbal warning, written warning, final warning, demotion, and dismissal.

Step 5 - Right to appeal

If an employee feels that a disciplinary decision made against them was unfair or wrongful, they have the right to request an appeal. During the appeal hearing, only individuals present at the initial disciplinary hearing can attend. The outcome of the appeal should be communicated in writing without unreasonable delay.

People meeting over disciplinary notes on a desk

What is a disciplinary hearing?

When dealing with a disciplinary issue in the workplace, although it won’t always be necessary it's important to hold a fair and lawful disciplinary hearing as part of the procedure when required. It's crucial to ensure that all hearings are conducted in a fair and unbiased manner.

Neglecting this can lead to employment tribunals, for example, if the outcome of a hearing results in an unfair dismissal claim. If an employee does file a claim against you, the employment tribunal will assess whether you followed a fair disciplinary procedure.

If the hearing process or your disciplinary procedure is deemed unfair, heavy penalties and consequences can be imposed on you.

Before the disciplinary hearing

Employees should be given sufficient time to prepare for the disciplinary and a copy of the allegations and all the evidence should be given to them in advance of the hearing. You must also inform your employees of their right to be accompanied by a colleague, trade union representative or trade union official.

During the disciplinary hearing

Employees must be given enough time to present their case, answer any allegations, ask questions, present evidence, and call upon relevant witnesses (with advanced notice). You must explain the allegation, review your evidence, and make sure you take notes.

After the disciplinary hearing

Take your time and consider the case carefully before making a final decision and once made any outcome must remain confidential. The final decision should also be recorded in writing and remain on record for at least six months (but could vary depending on the type of action taken).

In some cases, additional evidence or mitigating circumstances may arise during the proceedings. As a result, the hearing may need to be postponed to a later date to allow for proper consideration of the situation.

Seek advice from BrightHR

While it’s never comfortable addressing employee misconduct, having a sound understanding of policies and procedures is crucial to handle the situation effectively.

However, even after following a fair disciplinary procedure, there may be some pitfalls. These may include legal implications, employment tribunal procedures, or low employee morale, which can cause problems in the future.

BrightHR has the resources available to help, from BrightAdvice your own expert legal advice team—who are available 24/7—to our award-winning HR software.

Discover more by booking your free demo or us today on 0800 470 2432.

Lucy Cobb

Employment Law Specialist

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