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PROGRESSIVE DISCIPLINE: Why is it essential?

Applying progressive discipline in the workplace is essential as it is one of the important points considered by the CCMA, Bargaining Council and Labour Court when a dispute involving unfair dismissal arises. Employers therefore need to understand what it is about and how to apply it correctly.

The courts have endorsed the concept of corrective or progressive discipline for first or minor infractions and Schedule 8 of the Labour Relations Act specifically requires that “efforts should be made to correct employees’ behaviour through a system of graduated disciplinary measures such as counselling and warnings”.

The need to apply progressive discipline is based on the principal that discipline should be corrective rather than punitive. Employers should therefore endeavour to adjust and improve unacceptable behaviour through corrective action, consultations and warnings, rather than punishing or dismissing employees.

Progressive discipline consists of disciplinary measures that give the employee a chance to improve. If an employee breaks a rule, he can be issued with a warning. If he does it again, he can be issued with a final warning. Accumulated warnings can eventually lead to a disciplinary hearing and dismissal.

It’s important to note that warnings are not indefinite. Although the law does not prescribe a timeframe, it is generally accepted that a written warning is normally valid for 6 months and a final written warning for 12 months. Although a warning that has expired may not be used in progressive disciplinary steps, ultimately leading to a dismissal, it may be used as aggravating circumstances in determining an appropriate sanction once the employee has been found guilty of an offense.

A progressive disciplinary system should begin with counselling or a verbal warning, followed up with a written warning and culminates with a final written warning. This may lead to a formal disciplinary hearing and the employee’s termination, should the he there after commit the same/similar offence. Every step in the disciplinary process is progressively more serious and penalties for these types of offences increase in severity upon repeated occurrences.

As indicated hereabove, progressive discipline applies to first or minor infractions. If the misconduct is, however, of a serious nature and of such severity that it makes a continued employment relationship intolerable, the dismissal of an employee for a first offence, without following the progressive discipline route, may be appropriate, provided that the principles of procedural and substantive fairness are complied with.

For the system to function effectively the rules of discipline must be certain and clearly defined and must be made available to employees in a manner that is easily understood, so that they are aware of what action to expect when committing offenses.

Schedule 8 of the Labour Relations Act requires all employers to adopt disciplinary rules that establish the standard of conduct required of their employees, the form and content of which may vary according to the size and nature of its business. It is therefore strongly recommended that employers act proactively and implement a Disciplinary Code, which will ensure that the correct action is taken and procedures followed when dealing with misconduct in the workplace.

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