What Are Disciplinary Actions? (And Why They Are Necessary)

Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 21 August 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

The human resources department of an organisation is in charge to initiate disciplinary action proceedings against its employees. It can be for a range of behavioural or performance-related reasons. By understanding why organisations take such corrective or punitive actions, you can realise their importance in maintaining internal order and preventing larger issues that might disrupt business operations and even tarnish the organisation's reputation. In this article, we discover the answer to the question, "What are disciplinary actions?" and why you might be required to take them, what are appropriate disciplinary actions, their objectives and when to take them.

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What Are Disciplinary Actions?

It may be beneficial to understand the answer to "What are disciplinary actions?". Disciplinary actions are remedial actions that organisations may take against their employees via their human resources departments in response to poor work performance, unacceptable workplace behaviour and violation of workplace policies. Many organisations have established disciplinary policies in place and communicate these guidelines clearly to their employees to ensure everyone understands them. Under these policies, they take rational and consistent actions that are proportionate to the violation. They may follow a specific order of progression for taking action in response to misconduct or poor performance.

The preliminary action may consist of issuing verbal or written warnings to stop or correct the issue. The HR department may follow this by suspending the employee with or without pay, demoting them or transferring them to another department, creating a performance plan to boost the performance of an underperforming employee and monitoring an employer who has been warned for aggressive or improper behaviour. If there is no improvement or change, the organisation may decide to fire the employee. Most organisations keep a documented record of the disciplinary steps they take as evidence in case of a legal dispute.

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Why Are Disciplinary Actions Necessary?

Disciplinary actions are necessary to adhere to the organisation's guidelines and policies for its employees. When employees know that there may be practical consequences to disregarding or not meeting the expectations set by the organisation, they are more likely to follow them. Additionally, by taking disciplinary action for employee misconduct or any other reason, the organisation can create and maintain a clear record of events. Along with protecting the organisation in case of legal disputes, this helps identify employees with previous track records and consider the situations accordingly and take appropriate measures to prevent recurrence of such events.

A manager or a supervisor is tasked with monitoring and evaluating an employee's performance throughout the year and initiating disciplinary actions for any of the following reasons:

  • Quality of work performance does not meet expected standards

  • Negligence of duties, chronic absenteeism, tardiness and incompetence

  • Unbecoming and unacceptable conduct such as insubordination, sexual harassment, aggression, intimidation, coercion and bullying

  • Stealing or vandalising the organisation's property

  • Falsification of personal information in the employment application

  • Use of alcohol or controlled substances during work hours in the workplace

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What Are Appropriate Disciplinary Actions?

Appropriate disciplinary actions are those actions that can provide a proportionate response to the problematic behaviour or situation. The disciplinary responses can vary from organisation to organisation, depending on factors such as the work and behavioural policies, culture and management style. An organisation may also consider the desired outcome when enforcing a disciplinary policy.

Generally, it is necessary for an organisation to have a clear idea about the behaviours or performance levels it expects from employees and what it is not going to tolerate. It is also essential that it establishes exact rules and proportional responses to deal with infractions and be consistent in their enforcement. An organisation's HR department may take several progressive disciplinary steps to improve employee behaviour and performance, or, if the misconduct is too severe or the work performance too unsatisfactory, it may terminate the employee immediately. The progressive disciplinary actions are as follows:

Oral warning

The manager or supervisor of the department may arrange a meeting with an employee to discuss their performance or behavioural issues and attempt to understand the matter. These concerns can include performance deficiency, unexplained absence from work, frequent late arrival, misbehaviour, sexual harassment, aggressiveness, bullying and other workplace policy violations. The manager or supervisor may issue the employee an oral warning and ask them to improve their performance or behaviour within five working days. It is common practice to document the vocal warning in the HR department's internal files.

First written warning

If the performance or behavioural problems persist despite the oral warning, the manager or supervisor can issue a first written warning. In writing, they can reiterate why the organisation cannot tolerate the concerned issues and advise the employee to take the matter seriously. They may ask the employee to make the desired improvements or explain extenuating circumstances verbally or in writing within five days from receiving the written warning.

As in the case of the oral warning, a copy of the first written warning gets documented in the employee's personnel file. The employee and the manager or supervisor sign the copy to acknowledge that the organisation issued a first written warning and that the employee received it.

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Work action plan

If the issue is performance-related, the manager or supervisor may assign the employee a work action plan to help them with improving their work performance. The supervisor may collaborate with the department head and the HR department to create it. They ensure it is suitable for the employee's work position and addresses their specific issues. The plan duration can vary depending on the employee and the organisation's willingness to accommodate them.

A typical work action plan can be for three months and has reasonable work goals. It may include weekly or monthly meetings to discuss the employee's progress. The work action plan is not applicable for employees who have violated company policies or engaged in unacceptable personal conduct.

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Final written warning

The manager or supervisor may issue a second and final written warning to the employee if their performance or behaviour continues to be unable to meet organisation standards. It is necessary for the manager or supervisor and the employee to sign the document and include a copy in the employee's internal department file. The organisation may ask the employee to respond to the final written warning within five working days.

Investigation

If the employee cannot demonstrate that there are unavoidable, extenuating circumstances for their case, the human resources department may initiate an investigation to find out the following:

  • If the employee was aware of the organisation's expectations from its employee

  • If the manager or supervisor have followed the necessary procedure in informing the employee of policy violations

  • If the manager or supervisor maintained a record of the employee's unacceptable performance or behaviour

  • If the employee received feedback and the opportunity to take corrective action with work and behavioural training

  • If the employee is likely to improve or the organisation may require to fire them

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Disciplinary actions

Based on the findings of the investigation, the human resources department may determine if the employee has violated the organisation's policies regarding professional performance and conduct. It may then decide on the specific disciplinary actions it can take against the employee. These can include suspension from work with or without pay, demotion from their current position with salary reduction, transfer to another department with adjustment in salary or even job termination.

In case of termination, the employee may receive the news in a meeting with the manager or supervisor and the HR director and also get a termination of employment letter that may be effective from the date of the meeting. The organisation may keep a copy in its HR files. If the employee feels the termination is unfair, they can apply for a resolution through the organisation's grievance policy within five working days after being dismissed. The HR department may then re-examine the case and come to an appropriate conclusion.

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What Are The Objectives Of A Disciplinary Action Policy?

The general objectives of disciplinary action against an employee are as follows:

  • To establish and maintain specific standards that are consistent, fair and reasonable for work-related behaviour and performance

  • To inform employees in clear terms about these set behaviour and performance standards and explain their importance for the organisation's mission, values and vision

  • To outline and recommend the disciplinary measures and corrective actions that the organisation can take if employees do not meet the established behavioural and performance standards

  • To monitor the employees with a track record and assess if they are heeding warnings and changing their behaviour or improving their performance to meet the established standards

What Are The Conditions For Taking Disciplinary Action?

An organisation may take disciplinary action against its employees under the following conditions:

  • The organisation has provided its specific expectations regarding workplace behaviour and performance clearly in its employee handbook

  • The organisation provides training workshops regarding appropriate workplace conduct

  • The organisation displays posters of its workplace policies in public places on its premises

  • The organisation ensures that its workplace culture and environment encourages appropriate conduct and work performance

  • The organisation makes sure that all its employees have access to and are aware of workplace rules and regulations.

  • The organisation's relevant authority documents cases of misbehaviour or poor work performance and refers these records to the department head and the human resources department for taking disciplinary action.

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