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The Rules of Discipline

The word ‘disciplinary’ has become somewhat of a dirty word in the workplace – holding connotations of long drawn out proceedings, complicated processes, and expensive bills, with things frequently going in the aggrieved employee’s favour.

And it’s easy to see why. Last year there were nearly 50,000 unfair dismissal claims in the UK – a figure which seems to be rising year on year (although the recent introduction of tribunal fees may help to address that).

But while dismissal may sometimes be the appropriate option, it isn’t the only one, and it is important for employers to approach all disciplinary cases carefully – ensuring the correct process is followed throughout so as to avoid becoming another employment tribunal statistic.

The first step is to ensure that your investigation and disciplinary hearing are fair and thorough (see my articles here and here for guidelines).

If, once these steps are complete, you decide that disciplinary action is necessary, you then need to establish the appropriate penalty – which should be ‘fair and reasonable’ based on the circumstances.

But how do you decide what is ‘fair and reasonable’?

  • Firstly, you should take into account the nature and seriousness of the incident – be it misconduct or poor performance (although poor performance is not necessarily a disciplinary matter).
  • Take into account any rules or guidance on the disciplinary policy in the employee handbook/policies and procedures manual.
  • Investigate the employee’s disciplinary record and take any previous warnings into account when making your decision, ensuring that they are still ‘live’.
  • Consider what penalties have been given to other employees in similar circumstances (if they exist).
  • Take into account any mitigating factors (which should have been raised at the hearing), such as a good disciplinary record, health or personal issues, or provocation.
  • Disciplinary actions include issuing an improvement note (in the case of poor performance), issuing a written warning (for misconduct), followed by final written warning for both, and finally, dismissal.
  • You can give a final written warning for a first offence, if appropriate.
  • Never dismiss an employee for a first offence, unless for gross misconduct.
  • Dismissal should only be used if it is deemed a ‘reasonable’ response in the circumstances.
  • Once you have decided on the appropriate penalty, you must inform the employee of the decision and the reasons for it, and of their right to appeal.

All of these points highlight how important it is to remain calm and balanced throughout the process – consistency is key. It is also vital to have clear policies and procedures in place (including an employee handbook) that have been well communicated to employees, as well as making sure you keep accurate records. This means there is less reason for ambiguity around what behavior is acceptable, and what is not. These are the things that, if the need arose, would provide you with the evidence that you have followed the correct procedures throughout – and ultimately protect you, should you find yourself embroiled in an employment tribunal.

For support with developing and implementing company rules and internal processes, and all stages of the disciplinary process, including provision of private meeting rooms, and even the investigation itself, contact TurnstoneHR on 01229 615 280 or email us at for a FREE consultation.

“There is evidence to suggest that good HR practice and people management in SMEs are key factors in strong business performance and can lead to increased productivity.”

- CIPD people Skills Project 2017


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