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Disciplinary matters

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Use this page to understand your responsibilities when handling matters of misconduct. If you’re planning to take disciplinary action, you should also consider taking advice from a human resources (HR) professional or employment lawyer.

If you’re dealing with a matter of poor performance, read our guidance on managing underperformance instead.

For guidance on handling misconduct for employees in their probationary period, see our induction and probation page.

Writing a disciplinary procedure

Every organisation should have a disciplinary procedure – it helps you set out expectations to employees, and act fairly and consistently when addressing misconduct.

Your procedure should set out the steps below, making it clear how they work in practice at your organisation and who to involve at each stage.

NCVO members can also download our editable sample disciplinary procedure.

Handling things informally

It’s best to handle minor conduct matters (eg lateness) informally initially, by discussing the problem and clearly explaining the standards you expect employees to meet. This can often resolve matters quickly, without the need to take formal action.

For guidance on having difficult conversations, see the Acas guide to having challenging conversations.

Taking formal action

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to address and resolve misconduct informally.

Some matters need to be handled formally – for example:

  • serious misconduct, such as alleged dishonesty, drinking alcohol during working hours or abusive language
  • repeated minor misconduct.

On these occasions, you should follow the steps below.

Carrying out an investigation

First, you’ll need to investigate the alleged misconduct – fairly and impartially.

Where practicable, different people should carry out the investigation and any subsequent disciplinary hearing. If necessary, you may also need to suspend the employee for a short period of time while you conduct the investigation.

As part of the investigation, the person investigating the matter will need to interview:

  • the person who allegedly committed the matter of misconduct
  • the person who made the allegation
  • any witnesses.

They should also review any documents relevant to the matter.

When conducting these interviews, the investigator should:

  • ask each employee to say in their own words what they know or witnessed
  • ask questions to prompt the employee as needed
  • summarise what you understand the employee to have said and write it down
  • not give your own view – you’re simply gathering information in order to understand the facts
  • give the employee the opportunity to add to or amend notes from the meeting, then ask the employee to sign the notes
  • thank the employee for their involvement and remind the employee that they should keep the matter confidential.

The information gathered for the investigation should be pulled into a factual report summarising the investigation, with any interview notes and relevant documents attached as appendices.

The disciplinary hearing

If the investigation concludes there’s a case to answer, you’ll need to conduct a formal disciplinary hearing. You should follow the steps in your organisation's disciplinary procedure – but you can use the eight steps below as a guide.

1. Arrange a formal hearing

In advance of the hearing, you should share a letter with the employee that:

  • informs them that you’ll be conducting a formal disciplinary hearing
  • invites them to the hearing, giving appropriate notice
  • shares the exact complaint and any information to be used in the hearing (including all witness statements)
  • shares the potential outcomes of the hearing
  • informs them of their right to be accompanied by a work colleague or trade union representative.

2. Find a chair

The hearing should be chaired by someone other than the person who conducted the investigation.

The meetings may not proceed in neat, orderly stages but it’s good practice to:

  • introduce everyone present to the employee and explain why they’re there
  • introduce and explain the role of the person accompanying the employee, if present
  • explain that the purpose of the meeting is to consider whether disciplinary action should be taken in accordance with your organisation’s disciplinary procedure
  • explain how the meeting will be conducted.

3. State the complaint

State precisely what the complaint is and outline the case briefly by going through the evidence you’ve gathered. Ensure the employee and their representative or accompanying person are allowed to see any statements made by witnesses and question them.

4. Hear from the employee

Give the employee the opportunity to state their case and answer any allegations.

They should be able to:

  • ask questions
  • present evidence
  • call witnesses.

The employee’s companion may also ask questions and should be able to confer privately with the employee. However, the companion cannot answer questions on the employee’s behalf.

Listen carefully and be prepared to wait for an answer. This can be a constructive way of encouraging the employee to be more forthcoming.

5. Ask questions and discuss the facts

Use this stage to establish all the facts. Ask the employee if they can explain the alleged misconduct, or if there are any special circumstances you need to take into account.

Bring the proceedings to a close if it becomes clear during this or any other stage that the employee has provided an adequate explanation or there is no real evidence to support the allegation.

Keep the approach formal and polite and encourage the employee to speak freely, with a view to establishing the facts.

A properly conducted disciplinary meeting should be a two-way process. Use questions to clarify the issues and to check that what has been said is understood.

Ask open-ended questions, for example, ‘what happened then?’ to get the broad picture. Ask precise, closed questions requiring a yes/no answer only when specific information is needed.

Don’t get involved in arguments and don’t make personal or humiliating remarks. Do not give your opinion on the matter at this stage. Avoid physical contact or gestures that could be misinterpreted or misconstrued as judgemental.

If new facts emerge, it may be necessary to adjourn the meeting to investigate them and reconvene the meeting when this has been done.

6. Sum up

Once you’ve established the facts, asked relevant questions, and given the employee the opportunity to respond, summarise the main points of the discussion. This helps remind everyone of the main points of discussion and ensure nothing is missed.

At this stage, ask the employee if they have anything further to add.

7. Adjourn

Adjourn about the meeting before deciding whether a disciplinary penalty is appropriate. This allows time for reflection and proper consideration.

It also allows time for further investigation (if needed) , particularly if there’s any dispute over facts.

8. Come to a decision

Based on everything shared during the investigation and hearing, you should first decide whether the case against the employee is proven. You must consider whether there was a thorough and reasonable investigation that allows you to come to a decision based on sound evidence or balance of probability.

You should then consider:

  • the level of penalty indicated by your disciplinary procedure
  • any special, mitigating circumstances that might make it appropriate to reduce the penalty
  • the employee's disciplinary record, general record, position and length of service
  • whether the employee has any other ‘live’ warnings
  • how the organisation has dealt with any similar cases in the past
  • whether the proposed penalty is reasonable in view of all the circumstances.

Once you’ve come to a decision, you have two options.

  • You can reconvene the disciplinary hearing and inform the employee, following up with a confirmation letter.
  • You can stop the hearing and send the employee a letter with the decision on another day. This may be helpful if you need more time to consider the matter.

The employee must be given the right to appeal if you’ve given a formal warning or notice of dismissal.

Dismissal

If matters don’t resolve following earlier warnings, or if the employee has committed an act of ‘gross misconduct’, the outcome of your disciplinary hearing may be dismissal.

Acas has more guidance for employers on dismissing someone fairly.

Before dismissing an employee, it’s important to seek HR or legal advice. For initial advice, you can call the Acas helpline.

Further information

Last reviewed: 01 August 2022

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 01 August 2022

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