With all the best intentions in the world, it is inevitable that any business with employees will need to refer to their disciplinary or grievance procedures at some point. Whether an employee has a problem with you or a colleague, their performance is extremely unsatisfactory, or their behaviour is unprofessional, you will need the help of clear procedures that ensure fair and legal action.

Your disciplinary and grievance procedures should be set out in writing and made easily available to staff. You may include them in a company handbook or employee contracts.

What are disciplinary procedures and what are grievance procedures?

Disciplinary procedures refer to the steps you need to take when you instigate action against an employee. Grievance procedures are for an employee to act either against another employee, or against you as an employer. They’re only to be used after raising an issue with their manager, when they believe the manager hasn’t taken the necessary action to resolve it.

There’s a code of practice employers should follow when setting out these procedures. It’s provided by Acas. You can view the code here: http://www.acas.org.uk/media/pdf/f/m/Acas-Code-of-Practice-1-on-disciplinary-and-grievance-procedures.pdf

Who are Acas?

Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) is an impartial service that offers training and guidelines on dealing with conflict and problems at work. It’s advised that you follow their guidance when setting out your own procedures. You don’t legally have to, but if you chose not to and an employee takes you to tribunal and wins, they could be entitled to a larger pay out. There’s more on tribunals further below.

The four steps of a disciplinary process

When instigating disciplinary proceedings against an employee, there are four steps you should undertake. These should be clearly communicated to the employee so they know what to expect.

First, you must inform the employee of the issue in writing. It should explain clearly what behaviour has caused you to begin these proceedings. It also needs to invite the employee to a meeting to further discuss this. The meeting is the second step.

Following the meeting, you’ll need to inform the employee of the result of their disciplinary. Once this is done, the employee has a time in which they may appeal the decision if they feel it is incorrect or unfair.

What happens during a disciplinary meeting?

The disciplinary meeting (sometimes called a hearing) should take place at a reasonable place and time. It’s best to keep it within work hours, and preferably in a private meeting room on-site. It would be considered unreasonable to conduct a hearing in a public location.

The meeting is a chance for you to explain the issue with the employee in more detail, and to present all the evidence that backs up the case. It also gives the employee chance to share their side of the story. If they provide new information, it would be reasonable to postpone the meeting while you investigate.

The employee is permitted to bring someone into the meeting with them. This can be a colleague, or a trade union representative or official. If this isn’t possible you can permit a family member, but you don’t need to unless you’ve stated it in their contract. This person can sum up the employee’s case, and can talk to the employee, but they can’t answer questions on their behalf.

The results of a disciplinary

There are a number of potential actions you can take against an employee following a disciplinary. This should again be communicated in writing. It may be a first or final warning, or you may demote an employee. You can also dismiss them, or you may choose to take no action.

The action should be reasonable considering the problem or issue the employee caused. It’s best to have a list of likely indiscretions in your company handbook, and the action you will take against these, so that an employee knows what to expect. However, this isn’t enough justification to take unreasonable action, and could lead to an employee taking you to tribunal.

Grievance procedures – Mediation, Arbitration and Conciliation

With grievance procedures, there are three main ways to offer a resolution. Mediation is when an independent third party helps the subjects to come to an agreement. If an employee has a grievance against a colleague, you can mediate. Otherwise if it’s against you, you will need to agree on a third party.

Arbitration is much the same, except that the third party makes any decision, rather than an agreement between the two parties. This must be agreed to in advance by everyone involved. Conciliation is the same as Mediation, but it is only to be used when an employee believes they have a case to take to tribunal for a claim.

When a decision is appealed

An employee can appeal against any decision in a disciplinary or grievance proceeding. They must do so in writing, explaining the reasons why they feel the decision taken is incorrect. A meeting should be held to discuss the appeal. Ideally this should be run by a different member of staff to the original meeting, to ensure fairness.

When it still hasn’t been resolved, you may be taken to tribunal

If an employee doesn’t feel their disciplinary or grievance proceedings were handled correctly they may take you to tribunal. This will be held at your nearest tribunal office. The employee may make a claim for unfair dismissal, discrimination or unfair deductions from their wage. You can’t be taken to tribunal for warnings.

If you’re found to be at fault, you may need to pay compensation to the employee. If they’ve successfully appealed against dismissal, you may need to give them their job back.

A judge will often ask an employee to attend a preliminary hearing to establish whether there’s a case to be heard. You won’t usually be called to attend a tribunal if it’s clear the evidence is in your favour and you’ve acted correctly.

In summary

It’s vital you spell out your disciplinary and grievance procedures clearly in a place where employees can easily access it. If you don’t make it clear, and don’t follow guidelines, you could be setting yourself up for a fall if you’re taken to tribunal.