Managing Workplace Behaviours: Understanding the Discipline Process

For many small business owners, a part of running your own business is the need to manage staff. For some, they are seldom faced with personnel issues or challenges and it’s fairly smooth sailing; for others, dealing with staff may be how you spend the majority of your day. An important step in managing workplace behaviours is to understand the difference between ‘culpable’ and ‘non culpable’ activities, and that each is dealt with in very different ways. ‘Culpable’ behaviours are disciplinary; ‘non culpable’ behaviours are not. This is an important concept that, as a business owner, is a key piece in your human resource arsenal and will help you respond appropriately to unwanted workplace behaviours or issues. 

Responsibility of Actions

First, let’s define the two. ‘Culpable’ behaviours are those in which the employee is in control and responsible for their actions.  Some examples include calling in sick when they are not, choosing to not perform their duties well or at all, wilful disregard for safety measures, or instances of theft. It is essentially when the employee knows what the expectations are in any given area and is capable of meeting them, but chooses not to. 

‘Non-culpable’ is just the opposite – the employee is not blameworthy. Legitimate absences due to illness or injury, poor performance due to an employee’s own inability or to a lack of resources needed to do the work, or an employee’s personal issues interfering with their ability to be effective in the workplace are some examples that would fall into this category.

Culpable Behaviours: The Discipline Process

Culpable behaviours are often fairly straight forward to deal with. If it is ‘blameworthy’ or controllable behaviour, it can be responded to with disciplinary action. For the most part, discipline is done in a ‘progressive’ manner, meaning that with each subsequent incident the discipline given is more serious.  This is done in order to allow the employee an opportunity to correct the behaviour. The most common path is”

  1. Verbal warning
  2. Written warning
  3. Final written warning, and 
  4. Termination. 

Choosing the Right Approach

Depending on the seriousness of the issue, the point at which you start the discipline may vary. 

For example, if you have an employee who is chronically late to work you may choose to start with a brief conversation that outlines the expectation that they arrive to work on time and that they are responsible for making arrangements to ensure they meet this responsibility.  If they continue to arrive to work late, the discipline would be escalated. 

On the other hand, if you have an employee whom you discover has been taking product from your business and selling it to friends, you would likely move straight to termination. 

Keeping Track

It is important that you keep detailed notes in your employee’s file that recount any discussions you may have had with them around disciplinary, or potentially disciplinary, issues. Copies of any written correspondence should also be kept on their file after they are provided with the original.

Finding Help

There is a FAQ sheet on ‘for cause’ termination, available on the BC Employment Standards website which is an excellent resource for business owners. It is important to remember that the onus of proof always rests with the employer for terminating with cause, and it is recommended that you seek legal advice before carrying out any termination. 

Non-Culpable Behaviours: Finding the Solution

When dealing with non-culpable behaviours, where the employee may not be responsible, the approach is different. Your goal is to find a solution to address the problem and to coach and support the employee so they are able to meet the expectations you have set for them.  

However, this does not mean that you cannot ultimately let an employee go on a ‘without cause’ basis; the BC Employment Standards sets out expectations around severance and notice in this regard.   But leaving this option as a last resort allows you to work with the employee in an effort to resolve the issue, avoiding the need to terminate and the costs associated with it.    

The Approach

The first step is to identify what the underlying problem is.  If an employee is performing poorly is it because they don’t understand what is required, or is it because they require more training?    

If you have employees who are often ill and unable to attend work, would implementing a workplace wellness program help resolve the issue?  In an office environment, a good ergonomics program may help reduce overall absences due to headaches, arm & shoulder strain, etc.   

In instances where you find an employee is going through some personal issues that are creating a distraction at work, making temporary adjustments to their work situation such as modifying their duties or allowing them to take some time off can be immensely helpful.   

The Importance of Communication

Open communication is important and where there is a concern, and by speaking with your staff when concerns arise, you may be able to get a sense of what is affecting their performance. By trying to find a mutually agreeable solution and providing support and understanding, you will likely gain not only a loyal and appreciative employee, but a great performing one as well.