Maintaining discipline in the workplace is vital to productivity, as well as a positive working environment. Just as an employee has certain rights, the employer has the right to take disciplinary action and enforce discipline.

Issuing warnings in the workplace must be in line with the employer’s disciplinary code. Warnings can range from a verbal to a written, serious written and a final written warning and must be fair, as well as in line with the seriousness of the offence. It is important to handle each case on its own merits, but take note that consistency is key to avoid discrimination in the workplace.

When to issue a warning – progressive discipline

Progressive discipline is widely known in the labour environment and one of the most important aspects to be considered by the CCMA, Bargaining Councils and Labor Court in unfair dismissal cases. It aims to change and improve behavior through correction, consultations and warnings, rather than punishing or dismissing an employee. Dismissal should always be the last option.

Types of misconduct
It is very important that every workplace has a relevant and up to date disciplinary code. The disciplinary code is essential to ensure that there are clear rules in the workplace, with appropriate sanctions, that employees can follow. When these rules are violated, the employer can apply progressive discipline, or in cases of serious misconduct proceed directly with a disciplinary hearing. The employer must keep record of violations and sanctions as applied.

There are different types of misconduct in the workplace ranging from less serious offences to very serious offences, influenced by the employee’s type of work and responsibility, the (possible) consequences of the misconduct, as well as the impact of the offence on the employee-employer relationship of trust .

In cases of less serious offences, the employer can follow an informal process by means of good advice or guidance, correction and consultation. If the employee then does not align his/her actions with the employer’s fixed standard in the workplace, the employer can proceed with a more serious sanction in terms of issuing warnings. Where the offences are of a more serious nature, a formal process can be followed in terms of written warnings and/or dismissal following a disciplinary hearing.

Normal course of progressive discipline

Progressive discipline consists of the following steps and warnings:

  • Verbal warning – valid for three months
  • Written warning – valid for six months
  • Serious written warning – valid for nine months
  • Final written warning – valid for twelve months
  • Dismissal (after a disciplinary hearing)

Labour legislation does not define the period that warnings are valid, but we advise the above.


The employer must consider the seriousness of the offence and apply progressive discipline according to the nature of the misconduct, for example in the case of:

  • Absent without permission for 1 day = written warning
  • Absent without permission for 2 consecutive days = serious written warning
  • Absent without permission for 3 consecutive days = final written warning
  • Contempt = final written warning / disciplinary hearing
  • Failure to carry out an instruction = final written warning / disciplinary hearing

When 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.  An employer cannot under any circumstances dismiss an employee without first holding a disciplinary hearing. This ensures that fair procedure has been followed and there is substantive evidence to dismiss the employee.

How to issue a warning

Prior to imposing any sanction, including a warning, the employer must consult with the employee to prove on a balance of probability that the employee is guilty, as well as determine the seriousness of the offence.  The employee must also be given the opportunity to present more information and explain the situation from his/her point of view.  We advise employers to have a witness present during this consultation and to keep a detailed record of all disciplinary action taken in the workplace.

Information to be included on the warning

  • The identity of both parties
  • The nature and the date of the offence
  • The validity period of the warning
  • Clear statement of what action is required of the employee to rectify the situation
  • Clear statement of the consequences should the employee fail to rectify the situation

Refusal to sign

Even if the employee refuses to sign the warning, it is still valid.  Make sure that the witness present in the consultation signs the warning to confirm that the warning was issued and explained to the employee.

 We always advise employers to keep the above in mind and be proactive by ensuring that there are clear rules in the workplace and that all employees are aware of these rules, as well as policies and procedures.



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