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Employment law: 10 common disciplinary mistakes

Employment law consultancy Peninsula highlights 10 common mistakes made by employers taking disciplinary action against an employee.

Disciplinary procedures can be complex and catch out employers (Picture: iStock)
Disciplinary procedures can be complex and catch out employers (Picture: iStock)

Disciplinary action is one of the most difficult tasks for an employer to undertake. Not only can it be a difficult process to put into practice, the cost of making a mistake can be extremely high, both in terms of jeopardising employee morale and in legal costs should the error result in an employment tribunal claim.

Employers often make mistakes that could have been avoided by following the required procedure. The procedure is, however, rather complicated and employers must be prompt and consistent in implementing it. It is therefore hardly surprising that businesses can be caught out.

A number of the common mistakes made in the disciplinary process are set out below.

1. Not establishing the facts of the case

Employers must clearly establish the facts before deciding whether formal action is necessary. The facts must be recorded for example, documentary evidence; business rationale; written statements; minutes of informal investigatory meetings or formal consultation meetings.

2. Not spelling out the allegations against the employee properly

It must be made clear to the employee exactly what they are being accused of and what the employer’s concerns are. These must be the honest concerns of the employer and should be held consistently throughout the disciplinary process. Disciplinary action can only be imposed in respect of allegations that were alleged during the disciplinary proceedings.

3. Not warning the employee of the possible consequences of disciplinary action

The employee must be made well aware of the possible outcomes of any disciplinary action taken against them. The employee must understand the gravity of any allegations made against them and be able to defend such allegations fairly and appropriately.

4. Ignoring evidence in favour of the employee while considering the evidence against them

Even where an employer is convinced that the employee is in the wrong, any explanation or evidence to the contrary should not be disregarded; it should be investigated properly. Employers must ensure they take note of any medical reports and act on any recommendations made in them. All evidence that the employer intends to rely on should be provided to the employee ahead of any disciplinary meeting to allow adequate time to prepare a defence.

5. Getting the reason for the disciplinary action or dismissal wrong

There have been cases where an employee who could have been fairly dismissed on the facts, was considered to have been unfairly dismissed because the reason stated for such action was incorrect. It is sometimes unclear whether an employee has been dismissed for capability or conduct – employers may prefer to claim conduct reasons in order to avoid confrontation, even though capability was the issue.

6. Using the incorrect procedure

It is important to use the correct procedure for the problem in question. There are a number of steps that must be carefully followed in order for a fair and correct procedure to have been in place, depending on the nature of the problem. Conduct issues are not the same as capability issues, and each should be dealt with differently.

7. Having the same person deal with the whole disciplinary process

Where the same person is responsible for conducting the initial investigation, disciplinary hearing and subsequent appeal, the disciplinary process may be deemed unfair or biased towards the employer. Although it may not be possible to conduct the process in any other way for small employers, different people should carry out the process where practicable.

8. Not checking statutory or contractual obligations

Where dismissal will take place, employers must check the contractual or statutory notice period the employee requires and whether it is a requirement (or appropriate) that the employee works their notice period. Holiday pay due or owed must also be calculated, as well as any further statutory payments, for example statutory redundancy pay.

9. Not giving ‘lesser’ warnings where they are appropriate

Only in very serious cases will summary dismissal be justified. It is important that the employer’s decision and the action taken are reasonable in the circumstances. In most instances an employee should receive a series of warnings before a final written warning and dismissal are appropriate.

10. Not seeking advice along the way

The process required for disciplinary action can be quite complicated and it is easy for an employer to be caught out. The specific procedure will vary depending on the reason for dismissal, so employers should always take specialist advice when contemplating disciplinary action to ensure a fair process is followed and that this can be evidenced as necessary.

  • Peninsula is a UK-wide employment law and health and safety consultancy, who regularly advise GP practices on these matters. For more information click here.

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