2. Avoiding Disciplinary Action

How to Avoid Taking Formal Disciplinary Action
Taking formal disciplinary action can be time-consuming and stressful - for you and your employee!

Managing disciplinary situations also distract you from getting on with other aspects of your job and taking disciplinary action is not always the best way of getting the most out of people.
However, sometimes it is unavoidable and the worst thing you can do is ignore poor conduct or performance, as it will not go away and will become more difficult to deal with.

But there are ways to help avoid having to take disciplinary action and when successful these will ultimately save you a lot of time and worry!

The following strategies will help avoid having to take disciplinary action or will ensure you are in a stronger position to do so. They may also help achieve better performance and conduct from employees.  All of these areas are covered in the various sections and categories on YourHR.guide.
Strategy 1: State Your Rules Clearly  
Make sure you are clear about your rules, standards and what is expected from employees.

The first way to get what you want is to be clear about it! If you are clear about rules, standards and what is expected it is more likely that you will get it! This means documenting your standards and rules (codes of conduct) and communicating them effectively.

You can communicate them via HR policy documents, an employee handbook, an online portal, or any other effective means and this should start when an employee first starts (or even before). A good induction will help to 'train-in' expectations and how you work, but also remember to make information continually available and to remind people [see induction and onboarding / YourHR.space].

Strategy 2: Have Clear Job Descriptions
Have a clear job description for each position and be clear about what the purpose of the job is and how performance will be measured. There is a difference between ‘doing a job' and doing a job well. Make sure you are clear what has to be done to do a job well.

Job descriptions can be measured by including 'key performance indicators' that can help make sure people are on track and concentrating on the right things.
[see job descriptions for further details]
Strategy 3: Be Prepared to Keep to the Rules (be the Referee)
Make it clear that you will address conduct issues or poor performance. If you ignore a ‘breach of rules' you will find people will continue to break the rules! It's like a game of football - you have a clear rule book, but you still need a referee. If the referee did not pull someone up for ‘handball' very soon everyone would be trying to get away with it!

Strategy 4: Be Clear About What Improvement is Required
Be clear when rules or standards have been broken and what improvement you require.

Before you move to formal disciplinary action you can hold 'informal' conversations with employees. You may even want to introduce an informal ‘File Note for Improvement'.

Informal conversations (workplace discussions) and/or Files Notes are NOT part of the formal disciplinary procedure. They can be quick (but clear) communications that tell the employee that what they are doing is not acceptable and needs to improve. Or a workplace discussion may be a more in depth discussion about a particular area.

This may be about timekeeping, absence reporting or how they are doing a particular part of their job. Very often this is all that is needed to bring an employee back in line - especially when this is coupled with reminding them of your written rules, or you make reference to their job description.

Strategy 5: Be Prepared to Take Action 
Be prepared to take disciplinary action when needed or if everything else has failed!

Unfortunately, there will be times when you have to take disciplinary action. Serious misconduct should not go without formal action being taken.

There will also be times when you have tried all the other steps, but there is still no improvement with conduct or performance remains below what is required.

By trying to resolve matters informally first you will be more confident about taking formal action and will have some information / records to support you. This will make the disciplinary process much easier (please see guidance notes on investigation and disciplinary for further information).
Strategy 6. Settlement Agreements 
A settlement agreement allows you to have a conversation with an employee about how they will exit the company. They can be used to help avoid having to go through lengthy procedures relating to poor performance, or long-term sickness or even conduct (especially where the conduct is around 'attitude').
There are procedures around settlement agreements and for further information please see the section on Ending Employment.

Detailed below are some examples of how you might avoid taking disciplinary action in some situations.

Avoiding Formal Action

If there is concern about an employee's level of absence, the first stage is to collate details of the employee's absence record. This should include the reason and duration of each period of absence and the actual days of absence.

This may demonstrate that there is a pattern to the absence (the ‘Friday-Monday' Syndrome) or that there could be an underlying medical problem (e.g., if the reason for absences are all the same).

Possible Action Prior to Formal Action: have an informal conversation / meeting with an employee and raise your concerns about their level of absence. This alone may help resolve matters without having to take formal action.

Very often if employees know that their absence is being monitored, attendance improves.  Any initial conversation should generally be demonstrating concern for example 'I'm concerned about your level of absence, is there anything the company can do to help you improve your attendance?' Showing genuine concern for someone's wellbeing can also help build trust and engagement.
Managers may feel more ‘justified' in taking formal action if there is no improvement. If an informal meeting is held, a note should be made on the employee's personnel file for future reference or the meeting can be confirmed in writing to the employee or a 'File Note for Improvement' issued (e.g., confirming what is expected and that formal action may have to be considered if there is no improvement) but a formal ‘warning' should not be issued unless the full disciplinary procedure has been followed.
Explaining the impact of their absence and how this is perceived by other staff can also help.

If you have a concern about someone's performance, it is important to be able to identify what it is about the performance that is unacceptable.  This is where the job description can be invaluable, especially when there are measurement criteria.  What you are aiming to do is identify the current performance, the required performance and the gap between the two.
An employee may not be aware that their performance is poor and often by being clear about what is required through an informal conversation and giving feedback, may be all that is needed to allow the employee to meet the required standards.  A conversation may also highlight possible training needs or a lack of understanding which can be addressed.  The more information the employee has about what is expected and required, the easier it will be for them to focus on achieving this.  Also see Training and Development.
It is also important to address things as soon as a problem is identified and NOT to let the situation worsen. Remember, an employee cannot correct their performance if they are not clear about what is wrong and what is expected from them! 
If you have provided clarity and considered training and performance is still unacceptable, you may then need to take more formal action. 
Sometimes it is not someone's actual performance in doing the job that is the problem, but their overall attitude.  Attitude is about conduct i.e. how someone is conducting themselves. This may be that they are being rude or dismissive to colleagues (or customers), or they are aggressive/passive-aggressive or not cooperating with colleagues.  
In these situations, it is important to identify the behaviour that is unacceptable and how it is affecting others. It is very useful to have examples to discuss with the individual. Sometimes the employee may not realise they are offending others. Sometimes they may need to be told that such behaviour is not acceptable. You can also point out related policies that may be relevant, such as bullying and harassment. 

Poor Conduct
It is important that an employee knows what conduct is unacceptable. Documenting your standards, rules or a code of conduct is therefore essential to allow this to be communicated clearly. This can be reinforced during the initial induction and throughout employment. 

A 'File Note for Improvement' may be an effective tool for minoring conduct issues and confirming the written rules relating to conduct.

Keep Notes and Records 
Most importantly, make sure you keep a file note or record of conversation (even informal ones) so that you can refer to these later if you need to.  You may want to use a File Note for Improvement Form or even write to employees after an informal conversation to confirm what has been discussed, any agreed actions and potential consequences if they fail to meet the required standards. This could be done in a letter or even an email (that you then save). 
Finally, please remember that you cannot take any FORMAL action without going through the full disciplinary procedure.  Please see the section on Disciplinary for further information.