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When discipline leads to more misconduct

If an employee thinks she didn't do anything wrong, handing out discipline could end up causing more problems

By Jeffrey R. Smith

When an employee acts out at work, it can have a ripple effect in the workplace. While not only affecting the employee’s productivity, it can affect that of others as well, especially if it’s directed at someone. Naturally, it falls upon the employer to take appropriate action.

On rare occasions, misconduct may be serious enough to warrant immediate dismissal. However, in the majority of cases, progressive discipline is the way to go. The idea of progressive discipline is to start with relatively minor sanctions, and if the misconduct continues, move up the ladder to more serious consequences – which can eventually result in dismissal. But progressive discipline is meant to give the employee a chance to mend her ways so further discipline isn’t necessary. The main idea is to improve, not punish.

But what to do when further misconduct is directly related to the original discipline? Let’s look at a theoretical situation: An employee is disciplined for misconduct, but the employee disagrees with it and doesn’t think she did anything wrong. It may be a matter of opinion, but perhaps the employee honestly believes in her position. However, whether the employee is right or wrong, her disenchantment leads to further inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, showing hostility to management and complaining to any co-workers who will listen. Regardless of whether the original discipline was warranted or not, the employee’s behaviour is further disrupting the workplace.

How should such behaviour be addressed? Is this a case of progressive discipline where the misconduct should be linked to the previous misconduct, or should the employee be given a break since it’s the previous discipline that led to the current behaviour and the employee is expressing a difference of opinion?

When an employee is being disruptive with her co-workers or not getting along with her manager, if there’s an option to move the employee, that might work. But then, that could be seen as rewarding the bad behaviour. How much effort should the employer make to right the ship when it’s one person causing the problem?

As is the case in any circumstances, maybe it makes sense to just absorb the cost, dismiss the employee without cause and pay the appropriate money in lieu of reasonable notice. It may be difficult to establish just cause even with a problematic employee, but there’s always the opportunity to dismiss without cause with the appropriate reasonable notice.


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Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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