What is discipline in the workplace?

Almost all UK employers can count on good conduct from their staff almost all of the time

71% of workplaces report zero disputes or incidents of conflict in a year (CIPD 2015). But what happens when an employee disciplinary issue does come up?

With an effective disciplinary procedure, which fits the Acas code and the law, you’ll be ready to handle disciplinary issues swiftly, fairly and with as little drama as possible.

It’s not just about punishment

While ‘discipline’ might conjure images of the naughty step, your procedure needs to be about more than punishment if you’re to maintain a healthy working environment.

Goals of your disciplinary procedure might include:

  • Ensuring all employees are treated fairly, equally and in compliance with the law
  • Setting standards of conduct, so employees know what is expected of them
  • Trying to resolve issues informally or internally, rather than through a costly tribunal
  • Demonstrating that a legal disciplinary process has been used, in the event an issue goes to employment tribunal

Employee discipline and the law

Several of the goals above relate to staying within employment law and avoiding costly tribunals — two things every employer wants to do!

In the UK, discipline at work is governed by two laws: the Employment Act 2008 and the Employment Tribunals Regulations 2008. It’s also vital your disciplinary procedure follows the Acas Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures, since this is the standard by which a tribunal will measure your fairness.

When should you discipline employees?

Disciplinary procedures can be used to handle two broad categories of employee conduct.


Employee misconduct covers a wide range of unacceptable workplace behaviours: from lateness to bullying, and from theft to misuse of computers. Your disciplinary procedure should follow the latest Acas Code guidelines on how to respond to each type.

Capability and performance

There are many reasons an employee might be unable to do their job to a satisfactory standard. They might have inadequate training, unacceptable absence levels or something else. You should try to identify the reason and offer the employee support before invoking a formal procedure.

Disciplinary action and sick leave

When an employee’s performance is unacceptable due to ill-health or excessive sick leave, disciplinary action may be the only reasonable course of action. However, you should be especially sensitive when dealing with health issues.

Getting the disciplinary process right

Try to resolve issues informally

Your first response to disciplinary issue should be to try resolving it informally. Make sure line managers have the skills to talk through problems and offer the right support, as they’ll usually be first at the scene.

Communicate clearly

If formal discipline is required, your first step should be a letter to the employee. Your letter should:

  1. Inform the employee they are being disciplined, and the reasons why
  2. Set up a meeting to discuss the issue, giving at least three days’ notice
  3. Remind them you disciplinary procedure so they can respond properly

Investigate thoroughly

Disciplinary action is like a criminal case — it should have a fair and just outcome. To achieve this, and to meet Acas guidelines, you must investigate the issue fully.

Keep detailed records of your investigation and the whole procedure. If the issue goes to tribunal, your records can show you acted fairly. You should also share your key findings and witness statements with the employee before the hearing, so they can respond properly.

Meet with the employee

Having investigated the issue, you should present your finding and hear the employee’s side of the story at the disciplinary hearing. The manager conducting the interview should have good knowledge of the law and the Acas code. You may also wish to have an additional manager present to take notes. The employee has the right to have a companion present, and to call witnesses.

Decide the outcome

After making a decision, you should inform the employee in writing. Your letter should state the reasons for the outcome and how to appeal. Potential outcomes can include no action, a warning, or dismissal.

Appeals against disciplinary action

Employees have the right to appeal against any disciplinary action you take, if they believe it is unfair. They can challenge the way the disciplinary action was conducted, the evidence you based your decision on, or the decision itself. They can also provide new evidence, or new reasons action shouldn’t be taken.

You should provide an impartial appeal process, dealt with by a manager not previously involved in the case.

Share this article

Have a question?

Ask away, we’ve got lightning fast answers for UK business owners and employers powered by qualified experts.

More on employee-conduct

Employee attitudes at work

In the middle of that chain is employee attitude — when employees are happy and engaged, attitudes and productivity are more likely to be…

Gossip in the Workplace

It’s only natural for employees to get to know each other. In fact, it’s great for business if your staff members get along. But over time…

What is a grievance at work?

When employees have a concern or complaint at work, they can take it up with you as a grievance. Typically the situation comes about due to…

Gross misconduct at work

What is gross misconduct? Gross misconduct covers a long list of offences that staff members could commit at work. This behaviour is…

How should you define misconduct in your workplace?

Occasionally, your employees might engage in behaviour that goes against your business procedures. You can make it clear what you expect…

Do you have a mobile phone usage policy?

If you don't have a mobile phone policy at work, this guide will help you draw one up. And if you do already have one we're sure you'll find…

What is professional misconduct?

There is a common sense approach to this. For example, if someone is frequently arriving twenty minutes late in the morning then this would…

Is serious insubordination grounds for dismissal?

What is serious insubordination? Serious insubordination is an example of gross misconduct where an employee refuses to follow sound…

How to manage problems with social media in the workplace

Social media in the workplace comes with its difficulties—you've no doubt already faced some. When your staff scroll through their personal…