Disciplining employees for infractions is a vital part of any HR pro's job, albeit one that's never pleasant. However, it's important that these interactions are handled correctly, both to protect the company from any liability and to give employees all the information and opportunities they need to improve.
Whether you're giving a first warning due to poor performance, dealing with issues such as tardiness or unauthorized absences, or reacting to serious misconduct such as harassment, getting the disciplinary process right is crucial. If you don't approach it carefully, you could end up with disgruntled employees - not only those directly involved, but also their colleagues - or even face costly legal consequences.
Here are a few key mistakes you need to avoid in order to run an effective disciplinary process.
1. Not following the law
The first step is to ensure you're not in breach of any regulations. The US has fairly few restrictions on what you can and can't discipline employees for at the federal level, but there are a few basic rights you have to be aware of. For example, the National Labor Relations Act prohibits any action related to union activities, whether the employee is already a member of a union or not, so pay particularly close attention to these issues.
2. Making assumptions
It's vital to consider all potential factors when embarking on a disciplinary process, and this means not jumping to conclusions about the reasons behind the issue. It's therefore necessary to conduct a thorough, impartial investigation that looks at the situation in detail and identifies the facts, including any mitigating circumstances that could affect the disciplinary process and what the next steps will be.
3. Not being clear about the consequences
A common mistake is not being completely clear about what the likely outcomes of a disciplinary hearing will be. For example, if an employee doesn't realize that the meeting could end with their dismissal, they may not treat it seriously, making the process less effective.
Similarly, if they receive a written warning, you must be clear if it’s a final warning, and what the consequences will be if there are no improvements. Ultimately, there should be no surprises for the employee at any stage of the process.
4. Not setting out the issues clearly
You must set out the issues specifically and clearly when putting them to an employee. If your allegations are vague or incomplete, this can make it more difficult for the individual to respond to them. For example, if a person has an issue with tardiness, don't simply say 'you're always late'. Instead, bring evidence of specific instances of when they were late, and by how much.
This ensures employees know exactly why they’re being disciplined and understand what needs to change. Without this, any disciplinary actions may not have the intended effect and could leave the employee feeling mistreated.
5. Not giving the employee a chance to respond
Individuals must be able to consider all the evidence against them and prepare a defense before any hearing. If they’re surprised with evidence of claims they didn't expect, they can't provide an effective response.
There should also be a clear process in place for appealing any decision, especially if the employee ends up believing the process was unfair or undertaken in bad faith. Being able to bring a second person into proceedings at this stage ensures there is transparency throughout the process and reassures every employee of its fairness.
6. Talking to them alone - or in public
When you go into any disciplinary meeting, it's essential an employee can be accompanied, whether this is by a union representative, an accredited arbitrator or even just a colleague to witness proceedings. This protects both you and the employee from claims of unfairness.
On the other hand, you should never be disciplining employees in front of other colleagues. This is embarrassing for the employee and hugely damaging to overall morale.
7. Reacting disproportionately
You'll have a range of options available when you’re disciplining an employee, so it's important to use them appropriately. Your firm may have its own guidelines for what constitutes major misconduct, but it's important you're able to show flexibility. Going straight to more punitive options can open you up to legal claims, especially if you aren't taking into account factors such as the employee's history.
8. Not documenting everything
Finally, it's vital that every stage of the process is fully documented, from written witness statements taken during the investigation to comprehensive notes of any disciplinary meetings. This is your biggest protection against claims of unfairness, and can also give you additional support for any future issues.
If you're able to refer back to previous investigations to establish a pattern of behavior, for instance, this puts you in a much stronger position if you need to escalate from verbal discipline to written warnings, suspensions or even termination.