Disciplinary Enquiries: Consistent Application of the Rule

By deborahhartung, 1 December, 2009

Having presided over countless disciplinary enquiries, I've pretty much seen and heard it all. The most common excuses that employees offer in these enquiries, is that they either didn't know about a rule (see a previous blog entry 'Disciplinary Enquiries: Awareness of Workplace Rules' on how to combat this) or that the rule hasn't been applied consistently across the board. The accused employee will complain that so-and-so also did xyz and nothing happened to them, or they were merely issued with a written warning or some lesser sanction.

Various factors contribute to the likelohood that rules are not being consistently applied within the workplace, including:

Size and Geography
In larger organisations where there are a number of offices/branches/departments spread over a large geographical area, it is especially difficult to ensure consistent application of workplace rules.

Individuality and Authority
Line managers are individuals and ordinarily don't all have the same understanding and interpretations of workplace rules, policies and procedures. In addition hereto, they often feel that, given their 'status' and role as a manager, they have the flexibility to make decisions on how to handle disciplinary breaches in their specific area - never considering the longer term effects or the fact that they may be setting a precedent.

The time between an offence and when the impact of same is actually identified or felt, also has an impact on potential sanctions. Many offences go unnoticed for weeks or months and when the effects are finally identified, line managers are often of the opinion that, given the effluxion of time, they cannot or should not take decisive disciplinary action.

The availability of information relating to serious matters, also influences the decisions that will ultimately be taken. Experience has shown that line managers who are not aware of the fact that a similar incident has occurred elsewhere, are less likely to take decisive action - mostly because they don't want to be the one to set the trend or rock the boat.

Our top tips for ensuring that rules are consistently applied in your workplace:

1. Create certainty and eliminate ambiguity: make sure that line managers actually understand what your disciplinary code means and what types of offences are included in the different categories. Monthly newsletters with short articles often work best in terms of creating this awareness.

2. It's about the underlying legal principle: encourage line managers to understand that it's always about the underlying legal principle or the underlying workplace rule - not necessarily about the specific events or merits. For example, whether an employee at a restaurant steals a can of cooldrink, a case of cooldrink or they hijack a cooldrink truck, the underlying legal principle still relates to theft or unauthorised removal of company property. By helping line managers to understand this principle, they will be in a better position to unpack an incident or problem into component parts and identify the underlying principle which should be addressed. Therefore, even if the merits seem simple or the prejudice suffered was minimal, the offence itself may still be extremely serious and could lead to dismissal.

3. Communicate: create a forum for line managers to discuss common workplace offences and occurrences, share information in a monthly newsletter or create a database of disciplinary offences with descriptions of the incidents and information on action taken and the outcome of the matter. Always take care to protect the rights of the individuals involved (i.e. don't use employee's names, clock numbers or publish information about the branch or department in which they worked).

4. Central Responsibility: as much as you may want to empower line managers and supervisors, it is important to bear in mind that a central person (perhaps on a regional or national basis) should be taking responsibility for IR matters in your organisation. This person should always be consulted and should always be asked for input, assistance and guidance as this greatly improves consistency within the organisation.

5. Take a stand: even if the application of workplace rules has been seriously lacking, this does not mean that your organisation has to keep on paying for the poor decisions taken by individuals in the past. It is within your rights as an employer, to take a stand and say 'enough is enough'. If you find that you need to do this, you need communication, consultation and a deadline. You want all employees and line managers to know that, even though we've been relaxed about time keeping in the past, with effect from 1 January we are going to be stricter and this is what is going to happen if employees exhibit poor time keeping.

For more information on how we can help you to ensure consistent application of workplace rules (from policy development, to newsletters and training), please visit
We have assisted many clients in creating exciting and informative newsletters that contain topical information about employee relations, management, leadership and performance management.



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