Despite disciplinary actions in the workplace taking one month or more to complete, new research by employment law and HR consultancy firm, WorkNest, reveals that 18% of employers experience matters dragging on for longer than three months.
The survey of 356 employers found that mounting delays in increasingly complex disciplinary processes are causing a significant drain on organisations’ time and resources.
The research shows that the leading cause of a protracted disciplinary process is an employee taking sick leave due to stress and anxiety, with almost a quarter (23%) of employers questioned citing this as the most common cause of delays.
Lack of available staff to deal with such matters is also given as a reason for setbacks by almost one in five employers (19%).
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A huge concern for employers
Disciplinary matters are the most common type of issue that the WorkNest employment law team supports clients with. Its experts dealt with over 100,000 related queries in 2023.
Disciplinaries can be a source of significant stress, not only for employees, but also for employers taking action, with worries over the potential legal ramifications. The WorkNest research found that almost six in 10 employers’ (58%) greatest concern is making a legal mistake when handling a disciplinary matter.
The research also points to a lack of confidence amongst employers when navigating disciplinary situations. Just 37% are ‘fully confident’ handling disciplinaries effectively, while almost one in 10 (9%) described themselves as ‘not confident’.
Considering the average award for an unfair dismissal claim in the UK, before legal costs, topped £11,914 in 2022/23, , it is no wonder that fear of financial and legal repercussions can deter employers from taking disciplinary action, even when it is warranted.
Pete Sewell, Employment Law Adviser and Solicitor at WorkNest, said: “In an ideal world, disciplinaries should be straightforward. Whilst in some cases, a longer process is justified, our research shows that all too often, employers are finding themselves ensnared in protracted processes that suck up valuable time and resources, whilst causing stress for employees and employers alike.
“It’s not surprising that employers are nervous about legal missteps. If an employer is perceived as treating an employee unfairly during a disciplinary process, it can be grounds for legal action. Clear policies, training and access to proper legal guidance are essential to minimising these risks and ensuring disciplinary situations are handled consistently, compliantly and with confidence.”
Common causes for disciplinaries
According to the research, the top three reasons an employer takes disciplinary action against an employee are:
Absenteeism (36%) - including excessive short-term absences, timekeeping challenges and employees going AWOL.
Poor performance (30%) – including repeated errors, unmet targets, subpar quality of work.
Poor conduct (21%) – including rudeness, lack of teamwork, failure to follow instructions.
Commenting further on the research, Sewell added: “The fact absence tops this list isn’t surprising given the direct impact it has on workplace business operations and morale. We know that absenteeism in the workplace has been on the rise in recent years and our research highlights the critical need to address this issue at its core. This can involve reactively managing issues when they arise, cultivating a supportive work environment, implementing wellness initiatives and nurturing transparent communication channels, thereby mitigating the necessity for lengthy formal action.”
Deciding the best course of action
Sewell continued: “It is disconcerting to see that almost a third of employers are disciplining employees for poor performance and we would caution against this. In truth, the disciplinary process should be reserved for cases of poor conduct only. Different methods to tackle absenteeism and performance issues such as performance management procedures or separating out issues within a disciplinary process can often lead to a better outcome for all involved. This is a complex area, which even the most experienced managers and HR professionals grapple with. The overriding message is, if in doubt, seek advice.”