Often when an employee is not performing, a great deal of thought and planning goes into how they are going to be issued with a warning. It’s usually a stressful time for the manager – very few people actually enjoy this process, and many dread it with a passion – and subsequently procrastinate.

Once you think it may be appropriate to give an employee a warning, don’t hesitate; start the disciplinary process straight away; send the letter inviting them to the meeting immediately, even if they are on leave. Walls have ears, and once the employee gets wind of what’s going on, often the response is to go to the doctors and put in a stress claim. As soon as the letter has been sent, you have started the process of “reasonable management action” and a stress-based WorkCover claim won’t hold up.

When you start the disciplinary process, it’s essential to follow the process through completely. You must have robust procedures and supporting documentation in place to effectively discipline your employees, both to ensure procedural fairness, and to protect your position, should the employee take action against you.

We see situations where the process starts well, invitation to the meeting is sent, the meeting is held, all the evidence and the employee response is considered, the decision is made to issue a written warning, the employee is advised that they are getting a warning, but then the warning letter never gets issued. Often these matters are not followed up because of the difficulty of articulating the problems, creating performance improvement plans and setting quantifiable outcomes. Subsequently, then the whole grievous process achieved so far is wasted.

It’s essential to keep the momentum going. Make sure you set clear and reasonable expectations and time-frames to review conduct or performance, and don’t let the matter drop. Even if the situation improves, have a meeting to this effect, and reiterate, that should the earlier poor performance or behaviour return, the employee will again face disciplinary action. Don’t assume the problem has gone away.

There is also the problem of different types of issues occurring with the same employee – if for example an employee has had a performance warning relating to quality of work, and then faces disciplinary action for an unrelated matter such as unauthorised absenteeism– can these two warnings both count if it gets to the point where you want to terminate the employee? There is no straight-forward answer, as there are many influencing factors, such as the severity of the issues, the links between the issues, how the earlier warnings were worded, performance or behavioural changes since the last warning etc.. So basically a veritable mine-field to negotiate!

Disciplining staff is a complex and stressful task, fraught with risk for the employer. Sometimes employees react badly to disciplinary action and it is imperative that strategies are in place to alleviate this as well.

If you need a check up to ensure your disciplinary system policies and procedures are adequate or if you need support or guidance to manage a difficult employee contact HR Guru’s and one of our experienced consultants will be happy to help.

By Resident HR Guru Louise Betts

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