Disciplinary issues - can matters be resolved informally?

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Issues of discipline in the workplace can require sensitive handling. A formal approach may not always be necessary to resolve issues so we’ve set out some guidance below for resolving matters informally where that may be the most appropriate response in the first instance.

Taking informal action to see if the issue can be resolved may be the most proportionate response, less likely to damage working relationships and less time consuming. Often a quiet word can be all that is needed to address issues such as minor misconduct or unsatisfactory performance.

The informal discussion

A two way discussion should take place in private. It will be a matter for the employer to decide who is best placed to speak to the employee however it is often the employee’s supervisor/line manager who is aware of the matter to be addressed. The discussion should be focused on the identified shortcomings in conduct or performance, and should focus on finding ways for the employee to improve and for that improvement to be sustained. Listen to what the employee has to say. There may be issues going on either at work or out of work which you have been unaware of. Additional training, coaching, support and/or advice may be all that is needed. Discuss what needs to be done, how matters will be reviewed, and over what period, to ensure that both parties are aware of what is expected. If felt appropriate, depending on how the discussion goes, the employee should be told that if there is no improvement following informal action, then formal action will be taken, by following the disciplinary procedure.

Be careful that the meeting does not turn into formal disciplinary action, as this may deny the employee rights that they would otherwise be entitled to, such as the right to be accompanied. No ‘formal outcome’ should be decided. If it becomes obvious during the meeting that it is a more serious matter than originally anticipated, adjourn the meeting and advise that matters will continue under formal procedure.

Points to Note

Be consistent in using an informal approach to deal with disciplinary matters, to avoid claims of discrimination or procedural unfairness.

Notes should be kept of any agreed informal action for reference purposes. Notes of the reviews should also be kept.

Hold a review meeting, even if the employee’s performance has improved, so that the process can be concluded.

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In summary…

Resolving issues informally can often ‘nip matters in the bud’ before they escalate into something bigger. It can save time, money and stress for all involved, as well as avoid damaging relationships, which are important considerations and part of good management in the workplace. It is well worth considering, from both an employer and employee perspective, whether an informal approach would be appropriate before reaching for the disciplinary policy.

Performance/attitude concerns might come to light at appraisals, however there have been recent discussions as to how effective some appraisal systems are. More regular conversations and feedback may be of more benefit (see http://www.personneltoday.com/...), and may also assist in recognising and addressing performance issues at an early stage, so worth bearing in mind.

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