When an employee’s unsatisfactory performance or behaviour calls for corrective discipline, small business owners don’t always have a Human Resources department to lean on for guidance.
It is therefore essential for supervisors at small companies, who may also be the company’s owners or executives, to be well-versed in what is legal and what is effective when it comes to employee discipline.
The first step for every business owner when designing a framework for employee discipline is to hire a specialist in employment law who can assist with creating an Employee Handbook.
The handbook should clearly set forth your company’s expectations for employees, describe what they can expect from your company and lay out your legal obligations as an employer as well as the employee’s rights.
The UK government’s website offers information for employers about different contract types and their responsibilities under UK and EU law. Be aware that different laws apply if you’re planning to employ freelancers, volunteers or family members. If in doubt, always check with a lawyer before proceeding.
You should distribute your company’s handbook to employees, who should then be required to sign and acknowledge that they have received and read the document.
If, after signing the handbook, an employee breaks a company policy, management may seek to discipline or terminate the employee. In such cases, a company decreases its legal risk if it can show that it has warned and counselled the employee, making it clear to them what they were doing wrong and what they need to do in order to meet the company’s expectations.
To provide employees with adequate information about their performance or behaviour, there are four general types of disciplinary action available when employees fail to meet expected levels of conduct. With each action, documentation in the form of emails, personal notes and minutes of meetings is crucial. After all, you may have to use these documents to convince a jury that the company was not discriminating if faced with a lawsuit.
If your company has an employee that has engaged in conduct that warrants disciplinary action, here are four ways to address it.
1. Verbal Warning
This is a face-to-face discussion of work-related problems. Such discussions should be carried out in a calm manner. If the supervisor is angry with the employee, make sure he or she takes time to cool down before talking with the employee. In these cases, it may be a good idea to have a second manager present to serve as a witness.
2. Written Warning
Such warnings should be presented to the employee face-to-face with a second manager present. The warning should include:
- Comments on how to improve
- Specific objectives and deadlines for correcting the situation
- Consequences if behaviour does not improve
- And a place for the employee to sign, acknowledging that he or she has received the warning, regardless of whether he or she agrees with its contents
After the written warning is presented to the employee and a manager gives a verbal summary of its contents, the employee should have an opportunity to tell their side of the story.
This may range from one day to two weeks or more. Whether or not you continue to pay the suspended employee depends on the nature of the offence and their type of contract. The government’s website has further details.
A termination meeting should be held face-to-face, and generally at least two company representatives should be present. A script should be prepared beforehand so that the meeting can be kept short, no more than 5 to 10 minutes. An employee’s passwords, access to buildings, computers or other company assets should be disabled beforehand to prevent the employee from doing damage to the business after they’re fired.
There are strict rules you must follow in the UK when dismissing an employee; failure to do so may result in them taking you to a tribunal. The government’s website has a checklist for dismissal, so be sure to check it thoroughly. If the dismissal is for reasons of misconduct, you usually do not have to offer any redundancy pay (although your company may choose to do so regardless).
When to Discipline
So how long do you wait to discipline an employee? John Phillips, a specialist in employment law, writes that “if there are grounds for discipline, you don’t wait,” adding that waiting “can open the door for second-guessing and even discrimination claims.”
When it is time to act, plan out each step along the way, down to the tone of your voice, keeping in mind the specific personality of the employee you’re disciplining. Mark Suster, an entrepreneur-turned-investor, writes that some individuals thrive on “light” feedback, while others tend to be motivated by a more heavy-handed approach that elicits a fear of being in “trouble.”
And while you should keep the personality type of the employee whom you’re dealing with in mind, all staff should be held to the same company policies, and disciplinary actions should be applied to all members of your team with consistency.
Inconsistency in the disciplinary process accounts for a large percentage of the discriminatory claims that end up in court and can result in morale problems and hefty fines levied against companies. Especially when your business is small, those are types of things you just can’t afford.