|Tips on the Art of the Discipline
By J. Talbott, LL.B.
The fear of making a mistake often seizes managers and employers when imposing discipline against employees. To alleviate these fears, this article provides tips on how to write letters of warning, suspension, and termination, and provides links to sample letters.
Understanding that the purpose of any letter of discipline is to encourage a unionized employee to change a negative behaviour, employers should not view the discipline letter as an opportunity for revenge or punishment. Instead, it is a tool used to bring an employee in line with management’s expectations, policies, work rules, or the collective agreement.
The tone of any discipline letter, therefore, must be factual and professional. The letter should be accurate, and come to the point quickly. It should be clearly worded, and should state the nature of the problem plainly. It should also be supportive in tone, offering to assist the employee to change.
Informing the Employee of The Misbehaviour
The first step, then, in drafting a discipline letter is to inform the employee that she has done something wrong. Explain what the behaviour is that has led to this specific imposition of discipline. Detail, also, the results of any investigations that may have been held, and how those findings have led to the imposition of discipline.
Informing an employee as to why their behaviour is wrong is the next step. This usually means appealing to an undisputed authority. For example, if the employee has broken the law, then there can be little quarrel that her actions are wrong. Employers, though, rarely have appeal to a criminal statute. Instead, they should look to stated work rules, policies, the collective agreement, job descriptions, or the common law duty of honesty and good faith that every employee owes her employer.
Detailing the Discipline
Detailing the imposed discipline is the next step in the letter. This means telling the employee she is being given a written warning, a suspension, or is being terminated. If the employer chooses one of the latter two, it must be prepared to document in the letter that either the employee engaged in similar acts in the past—and was disciplined and warned that her conduct would lead to further and greater discipline—or that the misbehaviour was so severe that it must lead automatically to a suspension or discharge. (In some cases, a collective agreement may make provision for when a particular penalty may be used.)
Employers have a duty to weigh all the mitigating and aggravating factors in a situation before imposing discipline. If, for instance, the employee immediately came forward and apologized for the misbehaviour, this would tend to lessen the penalty imposed. However, if the employee was not cooperative and attempted to hide evidence of guilt, this would tend to increase the penalty applied against her. Employers must also consider any evidence offered of personal or work related stress.
Presuming the employee is not fired, the letter should dictate what the employee must do in future to correct their misbehaviour. Here, the employer should avoid generalities. Be specific. Give examples and create a time frame of when the behaviour should change. Describe clearly what the proper behaviour expected will look like. And—this is very important—ALWAYS warn the employee that future repetition of similar behaviour “may lead to discipline up to and including dismissal.” (These words are an old formula used in labour relations, and will meet the approval of arbitrators and judges—the real audience of the discipline letter.)
Signing Off the Disciplinary Letter
When signing off, employers should be courteous and indicate that they wish to help the employee improve. Managers, for example, may wish to state they are available to discuss any issues that may come up at work in the future. In addition, this portion of the letter should also be used to refer the employee to an employee assistance program or professional counselling, if it is covered under the employer’s health insurance. Lastly, remember to carbon copy the personnel file of the employee and to copy the shop stewards.
Sample Written Warning Letter
Sample Suspension Letter
Sample Termination Letter
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
J. Talbott, LL.B., is a labour lawyer, consultant, and founder of the Ottawa firm, Labour Relations Consultants. He was formerly Director of Human Resources for a unionized, national non-profit organization. His contact information is given below.
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