Discipline and Grievance

by Kate Russell

Standards and rules

The single best way to reduce disciplinary problems is to set clear standards and tell employees what will happen if the standards are not met.


A standard is the minimum level of conduct, performance or behaviour acceptable to the organisation.


Note that, in general, managers communicate standards very imprecisely. For example, we talk about a couple of minutes when we mean ten.

Standards should be precise and capable of being measured. As human beings we are not by nature very specific in our conversational speech. We tend to say things like, ‘You must be here on time’. And then we’re irritated when employees come sauntering in ten or fifteen minutes after the time we mean (but haven’t specified).

Don’t expect employees to automatically interpret your statements in the way you mean them. We talk very generally, but to get the results you want you must learn to be more precise and detailed. It would be more effective to say ‘You must be at your work-station and prepared to start work at 8 am’.


A manager interviewed a female employee about her appalling attendance record. She’d taken about 20 days sickness in a few months. The conversation went something like this:

Manager: ‘Doris, your attendance record is unacceptably poor. You’ve taken 20 days’ sick in the last three months. Doris, I want your attendance to improve. If you don’t improve I’ll have to take you through the disciplinary process for non-attendance and you may ultimately be dismissed. Can we agree on this, Doris?’

Doris: ‘I’ll do my very best to improve, boss!’

They agreed to meet in another three months.

Three months later, they reconvened their meeting. At the second meeting, the manager discovered that she had indeed improved – she had taken a mere 16 days of sickness absence, instead of 20. So he got what he asked for, not what he wanted.

What he should have said was something along the lines of ‘If you are off work more than three days during the next three months I will talk to you again as part of our formal disciplinary procedure.’


Don’t be afraid to put a precise number on a requirement (subject to the overriding requirement of reasonableness).

Standards must be communicated to all staff. It is good practice to advise prospective employees of key standards at the recruitment stage. If shift work is required, for instance, you should tell the candidate about this at the interview. Standards must be reinforced at induction, on a daily or weekly basis in the workplace and at appraisal.

One of the most common defences to complaints by employers is: “I didn’t know”. You must have evidence that the standard has been communicated. Unless you can prove that an employee knew the standard (or is prepared to acknowledge that he was aware of it), and there is also clear evidence that he is below the standard, there is unlikely to be a successful conclusion.


Wherever possible, standards should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound (SMART).

If an employee falls short of the required standard, it is virtually impossible to bring about an improvement in his performance or conduct unless the following elements are present.

  • The organisation has a clear set of standards.
  • The standards have been communicated to all workers.
  • Factual evidence is available which indicates that conduct or performance is below the accepted standard.
  • There are clear rules and procedures which outline to all employees how the issue will be dealt with.


The rules are the dos and don’ts of the workplace, and disciplinary rules set the standards for the organisation. They may specify standards in the following areas:

  • Punctuality
  • Attendance
  • Performance
  • Appearance
  • Conduct
  • Safety.

Such rules must be clearly communicated to all employees as soon as possible so that everyone knows and understands what is expected from them.

  • Rules should be written down, both to ensure staff know what is required of them and to avoid misunderstandings.
  • They must be non-discriminatory in content and in application.
  • Staff must have access to written rules.

It is a good idea to cover the rules as part of the induction procedure.

Special attention should be given to explaining the rules where work is carried out by young people (in other words those between the ages of 16 and 18 years), by those with little experience of the work, or by staff whose English language skills may be limited.

Disciplinary and grievance rules should be reviewed and updated periodically. Where a ruling has fallen into disuse or has not been applied consistently, inform employees in advance of any agreed changes or reintroduction.


If you propose to explore breaches of standards or rules you have to collect the evidence. Opinion will not do. Evidence is the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.

In cases of discipline it is for the employer to provide the employee with all the evidence on which the company will rely. Typically this will be in the form of witness statements, emails, notes from meetings, policies, procedures, workplace rules, training records etc. These must be provided in advance of the disciplinary hearing. The evidence should be provided when the employee is invited to the hearing, or at least far enough in advance for them to be able to prepare a defence.

In some cases it may be one person’s word against another. Where possible you should always look for independent corroborative evidence.