Disciplinary issues are part and parcel of the world of work. People do stuff wrong. Managers sometimes think people do things wrong, when they haven’t. People don’t follow procedures, make a gross mistake, take their workplace for granted, or just become embroiled in an issue they didn’t intend to that later has consequences.
This is the real world of work.
I’ve been a generalist HR professional now for around 15 years and have lost track of the number of cases i’ve been involved in, from low-level misconduct matters to complex dismissal issues that have ended up at employment tribunal, i’ve been exposed to the lot.
So here are my five tips on how to professionally deal with a disciplinary process.
1. Be clear on who is doing what.I always map disciplinary cases out considering the worst case scenario, even for the most insignificant low-level matter that might not even proceed beyond an investigation. By that I mean I plan out who could be the investigator, who could chair the disciplinary, who could hear the appeal and so forth and then I validate that with whomever necessary in line with policy. By coordinating this in advance, you have the ability to avoid scheduling issues and delays, you can avoid the age-old dilemma of ensuring someone suitably senior in the organisation can hear an appeal and so forth.
The next part of that process involves ensuring that each person knows what their role in the process is (or could be), and how to carry out the duties assigned to that role. For example, ensuring that an investigator is trained on how to carry out an investigation, or ensuring a disciplinary chair knows the plan they should follow for chairing that meeting. Simple stuff, not rocket-science, but where this is neglected, problems arise. It’s an important process, people should really know what they are doing. Many people make mistakes the first time they are involved in a disciplinary case, simply because they did not really know what they were doing, or it was taken for granted that they could carry out the task without guidance – which is not fair on them, and not fair on the employee concerned.
2. Stick to the policy
In my experience employment tribunal chairs are more forgiving of companies that don’t have a disciplinary policy and procedure, than those who have a procedure and choose not to follow it.
A disciplinary policy and procedure can be long-winded and detailed or basic and concise, but either way, I strongly advise that whatever you say you are going to do (by that I mean whatever your policy says you should do) you make sure you do it. Failure to do so, opens a line of questioning at tribunal which can untangle the whole case and is simply unfair on the employee concerned and will paint the organisation in a poor light, unless the process was not followed for a valid reason.
3. Keep adequate documentation
If a disciplinary matter ultimately reaches an employment tribunal, more often than not, better quality documentation should allow for a more informed tribunal decision. When policies are missing, or notes have gone astray, or witness statements are illegible or disciplinary outcome letters don’t correspond with the allegations outlined on disciplinary invite letters etc, this will depict two impressions of your organisation – firstly, shoddy paperwork will likely mean a shoddy process, and secondly, is a shoddy process indicative of a poor employer. I’m not saying that these are fair assumptions to make, but they are assumptions that could be made and are always avoidable.
During disciplinary matters I advise participants to live by the golden rule, that every document could one day be scrutinised by a legal professional, so take care, keep documentation accurate and relevant, and ensure the standard of the documentation gives a good indication of the professionalism of the company.
4. Keep the process professional, reasonable and fair
A disciplinary process is a professional, business process. Granted, it needs more emotional intelligence than most but if the process is dealt with professionally then it has less opportunity to stray into personal biases. Be reasonable in applying the policy, in dealing with timeframes and managing ‘face’ at work and be fair in how the employee subjected to the process is feeling. This is not personal, regardless of the allegations against them, which might ultimately end up to be incorrect and unfounded, the employee absolutely deserves and has a right to fairness. Think about how you would like to be treated if you were in this position.
5. Maintain the barrier
HR folk have come under fire in recent times for becoming too involved in disciplinary cases. A recent example is in this case here where the HR professional gave advice that appeared to signigicantly influence the decision maker and that was perceived as therefore altering the decision of the case.
HR should professionally offer advice and support, offer a ‘guardianship’ over how the policy is being applied and what employment legal issues may need to be considered, but unless specifically assigned in a managerial role to partake in the process in any capacity other than to support, then we should ensure that barrier is maintained at all times.
I hope this is helpful to you.