Progressive discipline

by Abrie Bronkhorst

The relationship between an employer and employee is based on mutual benefits and respect. Clear rules and guidelines ensure that friction and misunderstandings are limited. This will, in turn, promote a productive and positive work environment.
The vast majority of cases referred to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) are due to “unfair dismissal”, with most of these relating to misconduct that led to the dismissal. In general, arbitration awards granted in favour of the employee are directly linked to the employer not having followed the correct procedure. The CCMA may grant orders for up to 12 months of an employee’s salary against the employer.
Progressive discipline is a widely known principle in the labour environment. It is also one of the most important factors considered by the CCMA, Bargaining Council and Labour Court when a dispute involving unfair dismissal arises. Therefore, employers must ensure that progressive discipline is understood and correctly applied in the workplace.

What is progressive discipline?

The Labour Relations Act defines progressive discipline as follows: “The approach of progressive discipline in the workplace considers the purpose of discipline as a measure for employees to know and understand which standards are required of them. Reasonable steps must therefore be taken to improve or change employees’ behaviour through the systematic use of warnings and consultations”.
Workplace discipline aims to adjust and improve behaviour through corrective action, consultations and warnings rather than punishing or dismissing an employee. Dismissal should always be the last resort.

Types of misconduct

Every workplace must have a relevant disciplinary code. The disciplinary code is essential in ensuring that there are clear rules in the workplace, with appropriate sanctions, that employees can follow. For these rules to be successfully enforced, employees must be aware of the rules. When these rules are violated, the employer can apply progressive discipline or directly proceed with a disciplinary hearing in cases of serious misconduct. The employer must keep detailed records of offences and the sanctions applied. Even if a warning has expired, it is still recommended that it remains on the relevant employee’s file.
There are different types of misconduct in the workplace that range from less serious to very serious offences. It is influenced by the type of work and responsibility of the employee, the (possible) consequences of the violation, and the impact of the offence on the employee-employer trust relationship.
In cases of less serious offences, the employer can follow an informal process through sound advice, guidance, correction and consultation. However, when the offence is of a serious nature, a formal process can be followed in terms of written warnings and/or dismissal after holding a disciplinary hearing.
We can distinguish between different types of warnings: oral and written. Under written warnings, we can also find serious and final written warnings. This gives the employee an indication of how serious his misconduct was and how important it will be to correct this behaviour.
If the employee repeatedly violates the same rule and the employer applies progressive discipline, the employer can issue a more serious warning if the previous warning is still valid. It is crucial to ensure that the warnings follow each other – a serious written warning cannot follow a final written warning. Employers must further guard against allowing warnings to accumulate unnecessarily. Follow the disciplinary code’s guidelines.
An employer cannot under any circumstances dismiss an employee without first holding a disciplinary hearing. This ensures that a fair procedure has been followed and that there is substantive proof to dismiss the employee.
The employer has to manage several business risks daily. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that employers be proactive by implementing clear rules in the workplace and following the correct procedures concerning all labour law issues, especially dismissal and general discipline in the workplace.



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