How to Manage Discipline
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First and foremost, be positive. Trust people to act responsibly, treat everyone fairly, and tackle issues and concerns early. Performance and motivation will then be good, and the incidence of formal discipline and complaints will be minimal. However, no matter how well you manage, disciplinary or grievance situations may still crop up occasionally, and you need to know how to approach them.
‘Discipline’ can range from an informal warning to dismissal. Whatever the circumstances, the guiding principles for handling discipline are the same:
- Prevention is better than cure! Wherever possible, try to avoid the need for any discipline by anticipating and guiding the individual’s actions.
- Discipline aims to identify and help correct lapses from high standards of conduct and work, not to punish or hurt the individual.
- It’s always worth discussing and mulling things over with somebody else (usually your boss) rather than taking action on your own.
- Always tackle situations requiring discipline firmly. Don’t duck the issue (however unpleasant), or other people will relax their standards and blame you for letting others ‘get away with it’.
- Your ‘jurisdiction’ over people’s private lives only extends to actions which impact work, other employees and the organisation.
- Justice not only has to be seen but also felt to be done. You need to be consistent and fair rather than be seen as a ‘Macho’ Manager. The ultimate test of equity is that the employee feels fairly treated and agrees with the actions taken.
- Dismissal is always the last resort.
Every disciplinary case is different in detail and needs individual and sensitive handling. However, the following general approach may help:
1. Identify Standards Required.
You need to make clear the required standards of conduct and work performance. Although there is usually no formal ‘Book of Rules’, it is up to you to ensure that every individual understands what is expected (and what is not!) from the outset. If at any time you decide that it is necessary to tighten up standards which have become lax or are not generally observed, it is important to give ample warning and explanation as to why. Do not suddenly take action and ‘drop’ on people without warning.
2. Know and Follow the Disciplinary Procedure.
A disciplinary procedure aims to provide a fair and consistent method of dealing with failure to meet the organisation’s standards. The procedure should also incorporate any codes of practice that need to be understood and followed.
The informal warning is probably the most important step in the whole disciplinary process, with a good chance of getting the individual concerned to conform and perform correctly. However, if the necessary improvement is not made, you must follow up with a first written warning and, if necessary, go through the procedure until it is finally exhausted. Of course, more serious forms of misconduct may justify an immediate written warning or dismissal.
3. Act Promptly
You need to pick up unacceptable behaviour and performance when it occurs. Unless you take prompt, firm action, you condone lower standards and encourage a drift into bad habits. However, acting promptly does not mean impetuously. Allow yourself the time necessary to plan and investigate beforehand and let the individual know that you will raise the matter if this results in a delay.
4. Investigate and Consult Beforehand
It is important to be as well-informed as possible before raising the issue with the individual. This does not mean prejudging the outcome, but you do need to be able to state the complaint with some precision and present supporting evidence. Be as sure of your facts as possible, and note all the points and support you wish to present.
Watch out for personal prejudices and involve your boss (and possibly colleagues) beforehand to check out the objectivity and appropriateness of your approach. This is vital even at the early stages of the disciplinary procedure. Personnel must also be involved before any discipline likely to involve written warnings.
5. Arrange an Interview
All discipline must be handled face-to-face and in private. Whereas it is sometimes possible to chivvy someone in front of others, any reprimand must be given ‘off the job’. This means a disciplinary interview to deal with the issues. Beg, borrow or steal an office out of view and earshot and arrange not to be disturbed. This is likely to be a one-to-one meeting for informal discipline (a verbal reprimand), but you may still want to call on others as witnesses. It might be appropriate for your boss to sit in for more serious discipline. Make sure that the individual knows about the disciplinary procedure and the right to be accompanied by a fellow employee if this is requested.
At the interview, the employee should be informed of the complaint and what the supporting evidence is. In conducting the interview, always show concern but remain unemotional.
6. Give a Hearing
Give the person every opportunity to explain. A disciplinary interview is a two-way process, not a one-sided harangue. This is an important part of the investigation. Consider the validity of the reasons given, and if new facts are brought to light, you may need to adjourn and investigate these as quickly as possible. Consider how far the individual was to blame and whether mitigating circumstances exist.
7. Determine the Appropriate Remedy
When all the relevant facts have been aired, decide what has been done wrong and what is necessary to improve the individual’s conduct or performance. Develop an action plan accordingly.
Also, determine carefully what level of discipline is appropriate. Take into account:
- All the facts. Don’t be swayed by emotion, popular opinion or pressure. Base your decision on all the facts of the case. Give the benefit of the doubt on circumstantial evidence.
- Previous ‘record’. There may have been previous warnings that need to be taken into account.
- Mitigating circumstances. This might make the action more excusable and subject to less severe discipline. Is the length of service and age considerations?
- Aggravating circumstances. The individual might be in a position that makes the action less excusable or may have compounded the problem in other ways.
- Consistency. What action has been taken on similar cases in the past? (Seek guidance from Human Resources here).
You will also need to determine the duration of the disciplinary warning. In some cases, it might be appropriate to ‘wipe the slate clean’ after a period of satisfactory conduct or performance in the future. Make it clear if this is to be the case.
8. Summarise and Identify the Next Steps
At the end of the interview, summarise:
- What the individual did wrong.
- The disciplinary action that is being taken. Explain whether the warning is ‘off the record’ or a formal warning under the Disciplinary Procedure.
- Make clear what needs to be done to improve.
- Specify any time limits agreed for performance or conduct to be reviewed.
- Identify what the next step in the Procedure will be if there is a repetition or no improvement.
- Outline what the Appeals Procedure is.
9. Commit to Writing
Keep an ongoing record of all situations likely to result in disciplinary action and record events while they are fresh in your mind. Keep this evidence on file and always note the disciplinary meeting itself. Don’t write down anything that you’re not prepared to copy to the individual or which might unfairly prejudice that person in the future.
Put down the date of any verbal warning in your diary and give the individual a copy of any written warning after the disciplinary interview. Do not do this before, as this defeats the object of giving a hearing. The warning letter should spell out the points outlined in section h above. Clear the wording of all written warnings with your boss and Human Resources beforehand.
Monitor the individual constructively throughout the review period. No further formal action should be taken during this time unless things deteriorate even further or some other serious misconduct occurs.
Ensure that you re-interview when the time limit has been reached. If progress is unsatisfactory, take the appropriate formal action.
Otherwise, praise the progress made and encourage this to be maintained.
- Identify the standards required
- Know and follow the Disciplinary Procedure
- Act promptly
- Investigate and consult beforehand
- Give a hearing
- Determine the appropriate remedy
- Summarise and identify the next steps
- Commit to writing
- Follow up
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