Discipline at work is not just the result of corrective action taken when an employee does not do what is expected of him/her or if he or she does something that goes against company policy. Discipline at work is an effective management tool with which one can achieve a better and more efficient workplace.
Performance appraisals are supposed to be a positive experience, providing the right platform for development and motivation – a positive opportunity aimed at getting the best out of the people and in process setting the company’s objectives for the next trading period. It is with these objectives in mind that a company should lay down the rules of the game. Rules that are imperative for a company to reach their objectives and allow each and every employee to know what he or she is expected to deliver.
Discipline at work is the process of using increasingly severe steps or measures when an employee fails to correct a problem after being given reasonable opportunities to do so. The underlying principle of these procedures is to use the least severe action necessary to correct an undesirable situation. Severe corrective action should only take place if the situation is not corrected immediately or if the employee simply ignores what he is told to do.
Some people may argue that informal action rather than formal by-the-book action is a better way to resolve such issues. In fact, at times – as in many cases – the right word at the right time and in the right way may be all that is needed, and will often be a more satisfactory way of dealing with a breach of rules or unsatisfactory performance. This, as opposed to a formal and long-winded meeting, might be the right formula to correct what you think is wrong. Also, such informal action may be used to ensure that the employee remains happy at his workplace and does not feel de-motivated in any way by the corrective action that is being taken against him. Over and above the informal action, additional training, coaching and advice may be needed, and both manager and employee should be aware that formal processes will start if there is no improvement or if any improvement fails to be maintained.
Constructive discipline – 4 steps
There are four steps to constructive discipline and such measures are dependant on the severity of the situation, unless of course the problem is resolved or employment is terminated. Steps may be may be repeated several times or eliminated as the case requires.
An oral warning becomes necessary when a problem continues and usually when a pattern begins to form. Apart from clarifying the situation and laying down the performance that is expected from the employee, an oral warning formally cautions the employee that a problem exists. The supervisor should identify the pattern and explain its impact on the employee’s job responsibilities as well as the business operation at the office and the increased responsibilities on those who have to cover for the employee whose work is not up to standard.
It is important that the supervisor explains how the employee must improve and indicate when a follow-up meeting will be held in order to evaluate any improvements. The employee should understand that the supervisor has to consider the matter seriously enough to respond with further discipline if necessary action is not carried out and if the situation does not improve. After giving an oral warning, the supervisor should file a note on what was said and the agreement reached. The supervisor should follow up with meetings until the situation is resolved or becomes serious enough for the next step.
Written warnings are appropriate after an oral warning, or a number of them, have failed to bring about the desired change in behaviour or when the problem requires more serious measures. A written warning may be given to an employee without discussing the situation or may well be accompanied by a discussion, so as to reinforce the seriousness of the case.
Written warnings should contain a summary of or reference to previous disciplinary measures, a factual description of the incident or the performance problem or pattern and an explanation of why this situation was unacceptable. It should also include a statement of what is expected of the employee and a warning that if the employee continues with this unacceptable behaviour or job performance, further disciplinary action will have to be taken against him or her. With this information in the written warning, the burden shifts responsibility for improvement on to the employee, who is expected to sign a memo acknowledging its receipt.
Suspension without pay
Suspension is a very serious disciplinary action in the process of discipline at work. During the suspension period, the employee does not report for work and is obviously not paid. Suspension is the step closest to termination of one’s employment. It is invoked for offences after prior corrective efforts did not bring about the required change in attitude, behaviour or pattern. It is also used when the offence itself is of a serious nature that is enough to warrant a suspension without prior disciplinary action. It gives the employee an indication of when he or she is one step away from losing his or her job.
Termination of employment
Termination is the final step in the disciplinary process in the workplace and is taken when the previous steps have failed to resolve the problem or when a very serious infraction has been committed, such as gross misconduct, accusations of fraud, theft or similar offences. In such situations, the managers are also obliged to inform the police about the case enabling them to take corrective measures according to the law.
Practical examples of discipline at work
John* is a valued and generally reliable employee. However, on this occasion and a countless list of others, he is late for work. Not five or 10 minutes late but stretches of up to 30 minutes and often close to an hour. In Malta nowhere is too far but he always comes up with the same excuse: traffic.
His eyes are half shut when he comes in for work, sometimes bloodshot too. His late arrival, on a daily basis is causing difficulty for other staff members who have to provide cover or the production line would stall.
Mr Bugeja* is his direct superior. He has talked to John on his own and he was always coming up with the same excuse, which although plausible, could not be accepted any longer. Finally, John* told Mr Bugeja what the real problem was: recently he was having problems with his wife and they had separated. He had not told any of his colleagues about the situation at home. He is having sleepless nights; he had to take the children to school on the way to work; he has to do the housework, the washing, cooking and all the other chores that were normally shared. Mr Bugeja understood the problem, and being a father himself, agreed to adjust John’s start and finish times while making arrangements for adequate cover, solving the problem. Mr Bugeja decided that disciplinary action was not appropriate in these circumstances.
How did Mr Bugeja deal with the problem? He did well to talk to John in private. This was a two-way discussion, aimed at pointing out the shortcomings in conduct or performance and encouraging improvement. In such meetings, criticism should be constructive, with the emphasis being placed on finding ways for the employee to improve and for the improvement to be sustained. Mr Bugeja listened to whatever John had to say about the issue. In such meetings, where improvement is required, the superior should make sure that the employee understands what needs to be done, how their performance or conduct will be reviewed and over what period. The employee should be told that if there is no improvement then the next stage would be the formal disciplinary procedure. It may be useful to confirm the agreed action in writing.
In another case, Sandra* is a member of the accounts staff. She has made a number of mistakes on invoices to customers, charging them more than what they were quoted, less than what was quoted and sometimes even invoicing them twice for the same work. Mr Attard*, her direct manager brought the matter to her attention on a number of occasions. He also provided Sandra with the right training and insisted on the need for accuracy, but unfortunately the mistakes persisted. Mr Attard invited Sandra to a disciplinary meeting. At the meeting, Sandra did not give a satisfactory explanation for her mistakes so Mr Attard decided to issue an improvement note laying out the problem. The improvement note required, the time-scale for improvement, the support available and a review date. Mr Attard also informed Sandra that failure to improve might lead to a final written warning.
In another case, Luke*, an employee in a small enterprise, made a series of mistakes in letters to one of the company’s key customers in which he promised impossible delivery dates. Obviously, these were not met and the customer was upset at the firm’s failure to meet delivery dates and threatened to take his business elsewhere. Mr Calleja*, one of the directors, carried out an investigation and invited Luke to a disciplinary meeting. During the meeting Luke did not give a satisfactory explanation for the mistake and admitted that his training covered the importance of agreeing on realistic delivery dates with the manager. In view of the seriousness of the mistakes and the possible impact on the business, Mr Calleja issued a final written warning and informed Luke that failure to improve will lead to direct dismissal.
In the last case, 25 EUR had gone missing from the company’s petty cash account and the firm’s cashier, Alison* is suspected of taking the money. Mr Casolani* investigates the matter and decided that the cashier did have a case to answer. He wrote to the cashier setting out the allegation that she had taken money without authorisation from the petty cash account and his grounds for it and noting that the allegation is of gross misconduct for which she could be dismissed. Mr Casolani also invited Alison to a meeting to discuss the matter.
At the meeting the cashier admitted to having taken the money for her personal use but argued that it was only 25 EUR and that she was intending to pay it back as soon as she received her wage. Mr Casolani decided that this is not sufficient justification for having taken the money without authorisation and dismissed the cashier for gross misconduct.
In all disciplinary cases that arise in every workplace, trade unions or employee representatives should always be involved in the matter. It is indeed difficult to ensure that the company’s rules and regulation are respected. However, employees and employers must understand that disciplinary measures are taken in the best interest of the employee, that of the firm and the rest of the staff.
(*Names have been changed)
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