Disciplinary Procedures: A Step-by-Step Guide for Managers

When is it time for a formal disciplinary procedure to take place? When an employee’s behaviour is unacceptable and they haven’t responded to informal chats or suggestions for improvement, it may be time. In this article, you’ll find information about:

  • What a disciplinary procedure is

  • The necessary steps to take during a disciplinary procedure and

  • Important things HR should consider when going through a disciplinary procedure.

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What Is a Disciplinary Procedure?

A disciplinary procedure is a formal way for employers to deal with unacceptable behaviour by an employee. In the UK, when employers undertake disciplinary procedures, they must follow specific steps before firing an employee to meet Acas requirements or those set out on gov.uk. This will help employers avoid hefty penalties if they were to be sued for constructive dismissal. 

What is the Purpose of a Disciplinary Procedure?

No matter how large or small your company is, at some point, you may need to dismiss an employee for unacceptable behaviour, otherwise known as employee misconduct. The purpose of a disciplinary procedure is to establish whether an employee should be dismissed and help you do the following:

  • Tell employees their behaviour is not okay;

  • Find a way to resolve the issue – hopefully in a constructive way that encourages them to change their approach;

  • Put penalties in place, depending on how serious their behaviour is; and

  • Make sure your company is covered if they try to sue you for unfair dismissal.

A disciplinary procedure helps you take everyone involved through a formal process. This process is designed to:

  • Help employers collect relevant evidence of this behaviour

  • Give employees a chance to explain their side of the story

  • Remove bias from the process (as much as possible)

  • Show that due diligence has taken place and

  • Help companies make sure they are treating staff fairly and consistently.

It’s important to note, though, that formal disciplinary procedures do not always need to be followed in the case of gross misconduct

Is it a Legal Requirement to Follow a Specific Disciplinary Procedure?

In short, no. While dismissing staff is generally covered by UK employment law, there is no specific law about what procedures must be followed. There are guidelines you should follow when taking disciplinary action against an employee, like these provided on gov.uk

Since this guide was developed in collaboration with the Labour Relations Agency, it’s worth paying attention to what it says. Ignoring its advice could haunt you in future.

The Disciplinary Procedure: Step-by-Step  

Disciplinary procedures follow a particular set of steps that must be undertaken sequentially. UK employers can choose to undertake their own processes, using the principles laid out by the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) code of practice or follow Acas’s step-by-step disciplinary procedures.

Grievances at work aren’t always serious enough to warrant a full disciplinary procedure. That’s why the first stage of the disciplinary process is to understand if it’s necessary to go all the way to seek a disciplinary hearing or dismiss an employee. Read on to discover the various steps. 

1. Understand the Issue

Before undertaking a formal disciplinary procedure, check if it’s really necessary. Sometimes it helps to have a calm, private conversation with an employee to help them understand what’s wrong and give them a chance to fix it.

Often, a personal conflict can arise from a simple misunderstanding. Rather than going through a full disciplinary procedure, which may not be necessary, HR can help managers with conflict resolution. For example, when managers can provide context, empathy and constructive criticism – or various other types of feedback – they can ensure action is taken to resolve underlying issues.

2. Follow a Fair Procedure

If the initial conversation doesn’t resolve the issue, ensure you follow fair procedures. Ideally, your staff handbook will already cover what happens when disciplinary procedures might be necessary. Refer to this document first.

Your handbook should include what acceptable work behaviour is. It should cover: health and safety rules, what you can and can’t do on the internet, what to do regarding absences and timekeeping, and how to report bullying, for example. 

(Note: gov.uk says that if you don’t already have rules in your handbook explaining when someone might face disciplinary action, what that action might be, and who an employee can appeal to if they’re unhappy about the decision, then they could raise this in a tribunal against you. So if your handbook is out of date, now’s the time to update it!)

3. Investigate Thoroughly

If you decide that a formal disciplinary procedure is necessary, it’s time to start investigating what has been happening. A third party (ideally, an unbiased one) should investigate the circumstances thoroughly. This may require interviewing all affected parties, gathering copies of emails and either holding an investigatory meeting with the employee or collecting evidence for use at a disciplinary hearing.

4. Prepare for a Hearing or Disciplinary Meeting and Hold One

Once an investigation has occurred, NIDirect says that statutory minimum disciplinary procedures should follow. These include:

  • Sending out a letter to an employee explaining why disciplinary action is being considered

  • Holding a meeting to discuss the issue

  • Making a disciplinary decision

  • Giving employees a chance to appeal this decision.

This letter is not the same as a formal written warning; it’s simply a document that informs the employee about the hearing or meeting. Employees must be made aware that they have the right to bring someone else with them to the meeting.

A formal verbal warning is issued only once the meeting has been held and a decision has been made. When this happens, the supervisor or HR professional involved will present evidence of wrongdoing to the employee, discuss the issue, and as a result, deliver a verbal warning to the employee. Although the name is misleading, verbal warnings should actually be documented in writing.

NIDirect reminds us, ‘Your company's disciplinary procedure should include how many verbal or written warnings are needed before a final warning or dismissal’. In other words, if your handbook says that several formal warnings are required, you may need to go through the disciplinary procedure multiple times before dismissing an employee.

It’s also worth noting that if an employee repeatedly fails to attend a disciplinary hearing, one may be held in their absence as long you take into account any written representations from the employee and any other available evidence before making a decision.

5. Tell the Employee About the Outcome

Again, this should be done in writing. This letter is still not a formal written warning. It must tell your employee what action you will be taking, and you must send this as soon as possible after the meeting. Actions could include:

  • Not taking any action

  • Recommending a formal Performance Improvement Plan

  • Issuing a written warning

  • Issuing a final warning (this cannot be done at the same stage as a formal verbal or written warning unless in the case of gross misconduct)

  • Demoting an employee

  • Dismissing them or

  • The decision to attempt mediation with a co-worker.

If, as a result of this process, you issue a written warning, that is the official written warning. It must be stored with your employee’s employment records. Formal written warning letters tend to expire after six months. (Read more about written warnings here.)

6. Allow Follow-Up After the Disciplinary Procedure

Employees must have the chance to appeal your decision. If you decide to dismiss an employee, you should hold a termination meeting.

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Disciplinary Procedures: Key Things To Keep In Mind

No one enjoys the disciplinary procedure. But if it has to be done, contemplate these few issues before proceeding, as they can be important.

Consider the Difference Between Capability or Conduct Issues

Are you disciplining an employee because of issues with their capability (performance) or their conduct? The CIPD factsheet on discipline and grievance at work explains the difference between the two as follows:

Capability issues are related to employee underperformance.

Conduct issues are related to how an employee behaves.

This can also relate to health issues. Beware of trying to dismiss employees based on performance due to ill-health because all employers have a legal responsibility to take care of employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, according to UK employment law. You could be accused of direct or indirect discrimination if you don't treat employees appropriately.

This can include continued lateness, failure to follow reasonable instructions, bullying, abuse of the organisation’s computer systems, theft, fighting or a criminal offence. If these issues amount to serious or gross misconduct, you may be able to speed up or streamline your disciplinary procedures.

Understand what Happens in the Case of Gross Misconduct

Gross misconduct is when an employee has committed an illegal act or one that violates your employment policies, the guidelines in your employee handbook and the terms of their employment contract. If their behaviour is immoral and they are no longer fit to represent your company and its values, this could be either misconduct or gross misconduct. 

Keep Meticulous Records

The CIPD suggests that employers should keep meticulous records of disciplinary action and communication, including: 

  • Minutes of all meetings

  • Texts

  • Emails

  • Attendance notes

  • Notes of telephone calls and

  • Copies of correspondence.

If you are using an HR system to help you keep track of employee-related processes and data, ensure you include copies of these records in their employee file.

Be Aware: a Verbal Warning isn’t Always a Verbal Warning

One last point: legal advice company, Burnetts Solicitors, says a formal verbal warning is only considered valid if you have gone through a formal disciplinary process. Even if a manager gets angry and tells an employee, ‘That’s it! I’ve had enough. This is your formal verbal warning!’ it’s not. 

At least, not according to Acas. If you don’t follow the process before issuing this kind of warning, it cannot be considered a formal step in a disciplinary procedure.

Frequently Asked Questions About Disciplinary Procedures

What Is the Most Common Type of Disciplinary Procedure?

The most common type of disciplinary procedure is the verbal warning. This is used in the early stages of any disciplinary procedure. Sometimes a verbal warning is the only necessary step because employees’ behaviour can often improve when they’re told it’s not okay and are encouraged to change.

Alternatively, some employees take a formal verbal warning as a sign that they should leave the company and resign.

As a side note, it’s worth noting that any exit interviews with employees involved in a disciplinary procedure probably won’t give positive feedback. Think carefully about whether their responses are valid and reliable. If so, act on them to reduce the chance of these issues happening again.  

What Are the Steps in the Disciplinary Process?

According to Acas (the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service), the following steps should be taken during any disciplinary process.

  • Understand the kind of issue

  • Follow a fair procedure

  • Investigate thoroughly

  • Prepare for a hearing and hold one

  • Tell the employee about the outcome

  • Follow up after the disciplinary procedure.

How Many Stages Are in a Disciplinary Procedure?

There are usually four stages in a disciplinary procedure:

  • Verbal warning

  • Written warning

  • Final written warning

  • Dismissal.

What Is the Role of HR In a Disciplinary Hearing?

HR plays a crucial role during any disciplinary hearing. They act as arbitrators, advisors and guides to ensure due process is followed. HR is also responsible for remaining impartial and encouraging effective communication to ensure optimal outcomes for individuals and the company.

Build A Clear and Transparent Disciplinary Procedure 

Being involved in disciplinary procedures is incredibly taxing for everyone, not just the aggrieved and the accused parties. HR has to manage the process or, at least, provide guidelines and best practice advice on managing disciplinary procedures. 

And they must ensure the process is documented so relevant employee-related procedures can be followed up.

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If you’re ready to spend less time on processes and more on what matters, book a Personio demo now.

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