Learn to tame the tiger (and the staffer) in the disciplinary process

Disciplinary hearings are often among the hardest jobs any manager can face.

disciplinary process
They are cloaked in legalese, very formulaic in procedure and yet invariably very personal. Some managers try to shy away from ever getting involved, but this can have disastrous consequences. Far worse than facing up to the petulant anger of the (guilty) employee, many of whom will deliberately get personal in a hearing to deflect attention and disrupt the proceedings.

But disciplinary hearings are vital both to maintain discipline (as the name suggests.) Also as what is often a very intense inflection point that can recalibrate staff and put them back on track to achieve their full potential to their own and the company’s benefit.

It’s hard work though and you have to be consistent. If you can’t do that, you’re just creating a brand-new HR headache.

So, do the basics and, if necessary, get a professional in to help.

Where to start and what are the basics?

Start with setting up the rules, also known as the Disciplinary Code. It’s not rocket science – or at least it shouldn’t be. You can download a basic example of a disciplinary code from the internet and then amend it to make sure every type of act that you think is objectionable is included. Then make sure everyone knows what’s in the code. In fact, email it to everyone and then set up meetings to ensure that it is understood, as ignorance is not an acceptable excuse.

If the time comes to get to the ugly phase of bringing an official complaint against a staff member to start a disciplinary process, make sure you know what you are accusing the employee of. Verify that the act that has caused you so much angst actually is an offence in terms of the code. Hint: having a bad attitude is not necessarily a variable offence. But swearing normally is and being disrespectful to management certainly is.


“The biggest lesson of all for managers at all levels,
all the way to the c-suite, is that the disciplinary process is as much
part of management and leadership as setting strategies and managing budgets.”

Don’t assume that everyone’s on the same page

The same goes for the old favourite ‘bringing the company into disrepute’. Sometimes the person who has done just that can’t see what the fuss is about. That’s because they didn’t see the bigger picture of the massive contract that just walked out of the door. Give details about how the act actually did what you believe it did. Explain how difficult it is to create reputations and how a stupid tweet (especially one that is racist or sexist) can destroy it all in an instant. Especially if it goes viral.

Don’t assume that everyone’s on the same page, especially in a disciplinary hearing. Sometimes you have to explain the makeup of this country and its fracture lines so that the person chairing the hearing is left in no doubt about the seriousness of the offence. Especially if the employee is trying to pretend to be ignorant – or innocent, and what the consequences have been, or might have been, for the company.

Stick to the complaint

When you are in the hearing, don’t bring up the person’s disciplinary record even though the temptation is overwhelming. That isn’t the time. And it’s also unfair because even if the person has a bad record it doesn’t apply to the actual complaint they are facing. Only the complaint that led to the hearing can be considered. It’s only if the employee is found guilty that you can speak about their record. Then use it as an aggravating factor to have them dismissed.

By the same token, if the person has a faultless record then any conviction will be taken as a first offence and the punishment will be a lot lighter . Unless they did something really bad.

But the biggest issue around disciplinaries is that you do not enter into them lightly. Trigger happy managers are as bad for morale and discipline as demotivated and disloyal staff. Getting called into a hearing or getting slapped with a written warning for the most minor infractions leads to staff getting gun shy. Then not caring at all, which defeats the whole purpose of having a disciplinary code.

disciplinary process

Make sure there is enough evidence to back up the charges

The bottom line has to be that if there isn’t enough evidence to back up the charges then they shouldn’t be brought in the first place. Instead you should find alternative ways of establishing how exactly the calamity occurred and indeed who should – and can – be held responsible.

It’s important that a company does its internal due diligence before racing ahead with a hearing only for a presiding officer to throw it out, because that decision can have a catastrophic effect on staff management relations.

Done properly, though, disciplinary procedure can achieve both the setting of standards and the excision of bad practices before they become institutionalised and passed on to the next generation of employees. Its most important role is as a corrective measure. A dismissal must always be a very last resort. Often if the code is properly adhered to and administered, the dismissal is totally unnecessary in any case.

The biggest lesson of all for managers at all levels, all the way to the c-suite, is that the disciplinary process is as much part of management and leadership as setting strategies and managing budgets. It’s something that you shy away from – or even worse, abrogate responsibility for – at your peril. So, lean into the challenge; learn it, master it and use it fairly, consistently and transparently to maintain a great corporate culture.

Lucia Mabasa expresses an expert opinion in this article

  • Lucia Mabasa is managing director of pinpoint one, a proudly South African black women owned executive search firm providing critical c-suite, specialist and critical skills solutions across industries and professional disciplines, in South Africa and across Africa.
  • Visit www.pinpointone.co.za to find out more or read her previous columns on leadership: avoiding the pitfalls of the boardroom and becoming the best c-suite executive you can be.
  • This article was also posted on Bizcommunity.

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lucia mabasa
lucia mabasa - managing director of pinpoint one human resources