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How to prevent disciplinary problems

Published 25 June 2018

A quiet word can be all that it takes to settle a potential disciplinary matter

In the ideal world all employees would do exactly what is expected and managers would never have cause for concern or complaint.

The reality is that matters in the workplace do not always go as we would wish. When things do go wrong, as they inevitable will do at some stage, an employer will have to act.

Disciplining employees can be an unpleasant, difficult and problematic task. It is part of the job, and how it is handled will distinguish the good managers from the bad ones.

The threat, or mere mention, of disciplinary action is widely viewed as an impending punishment. But used effectively the disciplinary process can be applied to correct behaviour rather than to chastise an employee.

The ACAS Code of Practice, which provides statutory guidance employers are encouraged to follow, does advise to attempt to resolve disciplinary matters informally (1)

If such an approach works, it can be hugely beneficial for an employer in the long run. Figures show that an increasing number of employees dissatisfied with the disciplinary process are now pursuing the matter.

Single claims lodged at employment tribunals increased by 90 per cent between October to December 2017 compared to the same quarter in 2016, according to Ministry of Justice statistics published earlier this year (2)

Not only can a successful tribunal claim against an organisation damage its reputation, it can also prove costly depending on the nature of a successful claim (3)

It will not always be possible to resolve all disciplinary matters informally, but there are steps that can be taken to prevent the situation from escalating.

Communicate with the employee on an equal level

The hint of disciplinary action can be disturbing or even distressing for an employee, so avoid talking down to them.

It is also a difficult situation for any senior employee to be in, in having to consider disciplining a colleague, and it’s important to treat the individual well.

Seek to work with them to address the issue and get them to actively participate in trying to find a suitable solution.

Two-way communication presents an ideal opportunity for the employee to reflect on an issue and to personally discover a way of correcting it. If this can be agreed there is a much better chance it will prove to be effective rather than if strict orders are issued.

Bad communication can aggravate the situation and lead to an employee submitting a formal grievance if they feel aggrieved (4)


Be logical not emotional

Appreciate that the employee will be feeling vulnerable. Any display of anger, aggression or disdain will make them feel under attack.

Take the emotion out of the situation and aim to have a calm discussion. Get to the core of the problem in a sincere manner, which will be beneficial for all parties.

Good effective communication can help to keep the situation clam and an employee will often respond likewise.


It’s good to talk about the problem

Explain clearly why the behaviour is a problem. Approach the matter with an open mind, do not jump to conclusions.

It may sound bizarre, but often an individual does not realise the impact that their actions, conduct or behaviour has had on others.

It seems obvious, but be very clear about why the behaviour is a concern and why it needs to be addressed. Once this is properly explained many employees will usually want to put it right.


Attempt to get the full picture

It’s important to fully understand and establish the reasons for any behaviour that has provided cause for concern.

It can sometimes be as a result of other matters outside of the workplace or linked to treatment by a colleague. If the problem is caused by a workmate it can sometimes be resolved through mediation (5)

Getting a clear picture of the issues will help to explain what has occurred and also in helping you to make informed decisions.

Disciplining an employee is never a pleasant task, but it is one that cannot be avoided and it certainly will help if you follow a fair disciplinary process (6).


1. ACAS Code of Practice [Internet]. Castle Associates Ltd. 2017 [cited 2018 Jun 9]. Available from:

2. March 2018 MW. Employment tribunal claims soar by 90% [Internet]. Law Society Gazette. [cited 2018 Jun 24]. Available from:

3. Employment tribunals - how to work out your basic award if you are claiming unfair dismissal [Internet]. [cited 2018 Jun 24]. Available from:

4. Raising a Grievance [Internet]. Castle Associates Ltd. 2016 [cited 2018 Jun 24]. Available from:

5. Acas advice: Mediation [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2018 Jun 24]. Available from:

6.Taking disciplinary action against an employee [Internet]. GOV.UK. [cited 2018 Jun 24]. Available from:


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