Discipline and disciplinary rules have long been recognised to be a key dimension of the employment relationship (Edwards, 2005).
UK public policy has largely been underpinned by a conceptualisation of workplace discipline as a linear technical process through which managers improve employee behaviour by the application of fair and just procedures (Edwards and Whitson, 1989; Fenley, 1998).
This ‘corrective’ perspective has been reflected in the progressive extension of the legal regulation of individual dispute resolution (Earnshaw et al., 2000; Edwards, 2005) and the consequent formalisation of workplace discipline through the near universal spread of written disciplinary procedures (Cully et al., 1999; Kersley et al., 2006).
In contrast, academic research has tended to emphasise the use of discipline, both as a means of punishment and as a way to exert control over the labour process (Mellish and Collis-Squires, 1976).
DISCIPLINE IN PRACTICE
Historically, the rules governing workplace discipline developed as a result of negotiation
between employees, trade unions and employers (Edwards, 1994). An overlooked aspect of this is the way in which disciplinary processes and outcomes are shaped by the interplay between different functions and levels of management. To date, the literature has largely focused on the roles played by ‘managers’.
While research has pointed to heterogeneity in managerial approaches to discipline (Edwards, 1989), there has been little discussion as to how operational managers and their counterparts in personnel or human resources work together in practice when dealing with disciplinary issues.
METHODOLOGY AND RESEARCH DESIGN
This research was conducted within seven case-study sites, which reflected the need for a methodological approach that exposes the social processes that shape workplace dispute resolution (Dickens et al., 2005). Cases were selected to provide a diverse range of settings in terms of workplace size, ownership, industrial sector, workforce composition and level of trade union recognition and representation.
(a) a senior HR/Personnel manager with responsibility for disciplinary issues,
(b) an operational manager with experience of chairing disciplinary hearings, and
(c) a trade union representative and/or employees who had acted as companions. In addition, further interviews were conducted with regional officers of trade unions that covered those workplaces without lay union representatives.
In total, 26 interviews were conducted including eight HR managers, nine operational managers and nine trade union representatives and companions. In addition, copies of disciplinary, grievance and related procedures were requested from respondent organisations.
The data presented below are organised as follows.
First, we provide a brief overview of the nature of the disciplinary processes within the sample case studies.
Second, we explore the roles played by HR practitioners within disciplinary processes and the key factors that appear to shape their approach to such issues.
Third, the attitude of line managers within the sample to the handling of disciplinary issues is examined.
Finally, we consider how line managers and HR practitioners interact within disciplinary processes and the implications of this for the way in which disciplinary issues are handled and consequent outcomes. In the concluding section of the article, the findings are discussed in terms of the research questions set out above.
As might be expected, all the organisations within the sample had written procedures for dealing with discipline and grievance that complied with existing legislation and broadly followed the Acas Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures.
The procedures normally included an informal stage or a reference to the fact that minor issues would be dealt with informally by an employee’s line manager. The majority of the procedures then had four stages:
– verbal warning, written warning, final written warning and dismissal.
In two organisations, further details were given in terms of the extent and nature of the disciplinary investigations and hearings, but in most procedures, there was a degree of flexibility in terms of implementation.
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The practice of discipline: evaluating the roles and relationship between managers and HR professionals.
HR professionals – a disciplinary police force?
They were seen as the ‘technical’ legal experts whose main function was to ensure consistency and the robust application of procedure. One respondent described her role as follows:
“coach the manager in the process and they make sure that the practicalities of the investigation and everything else was done in line with the process” (HR Manager,Private Sector A).
Operational management and discipline – informality, vulnerability and dependency
Operational managers throughout the sample were expected to address issues with employees at an early stage and so avoid any escalation into formal disciplinary disputes. However, not all managers were either good at this or convinced by its value. Formal processes were seen as time-consuming and complex. If disciplinary or performance related issues were raised:
“You’re then going into a performance improvement programme which takes six months’ worth of little meetings, giving tasks, and if the manager’s not willing to spend the time to correct it, they’ll just ignore it and let it go” (Project Manager, Private Sector B).
This article begins to address this important issue and poses a number of key questions.
First, what roles do operational managers and HR practitioners play within disciplinary processes?
Second, how do operational managers and HR practitioners relate to each other within the management of workplace discipline?
Third, how does this relationship shape the nature of both formal and informal disciplinary processes?
Finally, what are the implications of this research for policy initiatives designed to increase the flexibility of dispute handling?
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