The workplace is set on the understanding that employees are human beings before they are employees. And being human, mistakes are bound to happen, and are part of the learning curve, hence disciplinary measures are put in place.
Disciplinary actions in the workplace are used to try to correct or curb unwanted behaviour. Various techniques are used to achieve this goal and they are: verbal warnings, written warnings, demotions, dismissals and so on. Before an employee is subjected to the previously mentioned sanctions, they must have committed a proven misconduct. The sanctions just mentioned, excluding verbal warnings, require a disciplinary hearing to be held before they can be implemented.
The error in properly implementing this by employers is the assumption that a disciplinary enquiry is the same as a disciplinary hearing. This is a false assumption that can bring about unpleasant consequences. To grasp this properly, it is imperative to identify the distinction between the two.
To understand this properly, the best thing is to dissect the term “disciplinary enquiry.” The compound word is taken from the word “discipline” that we all know, and the word “enquiry” means to investigate. Therefore, a disciplinary enquiry is an investigation conducted to determine whether a misconduct has been committed.
For example, if an employee is alleged to have committed an offence, such as assaulting a fellow employee, then a disciplinary enquiry would have to be held. Witnesses, if any, would have to be questioned, statements written, and video footage analysed. This process does not require any formal proceedings, and an investigating officer can conduct it on their own or with colleagues at any given time. However, it is fully at their discretion and no person is forced to cooperate. It is then that the evidence that is gathered here will be used during a disciplinary hearing.
This term is relatively like the one above but there is a difference. A disciplinary hearing is a formal sitting that presents an opportunity for an allegation brought forward against an employee to be heard. In this sitting, the alleged aggressor must be notified at least 48 hours in advance and can be represented by another employee.
In addition to this, there must be a neutral chairperson, an HR representative must attend, and witnesses are allowed and can be cross examined by both parties, i.e. the complainant and the respondent. It is evident that this process has a lot more technicalities to consider and is a lot more formal.
To paint an even clearer picture, we will use an example. Let us assume that employee A is alleged to have used company funds without prior authorisation. Employee A would have to be invited in writing to a disciplinary hearing and the hearing date must at least be 48 hours away from the date of notification. The allegations brought forward must be clearly stipulated in the invitation letter along with the names of the complainant, the HR representative, and the chairperson. The hearing must be conducted in such a manner that is fair, with both parties given an equal opportunity to state their case and question witnesses, with neither party being made to feel they are guilty before the final determination.
Disciplinary enquiries are usually a lot more relaxed and less formal. Their mandate is to determine whether there is a “case” to try, or it is merely a ruse. A disciplinary hearing, on the other hand, is a formal proceeding that determines the outcome of a dispute or complaint. It has conditions that must be met to ensure that the outcome holds water. It is therefore important that the right term is used when inviting employees for disciplinary hearings.
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