Dealing with disciplinary issues

Getting disciplinary procedures right first time requires consideration of best practice and procedure

01 June 2020, at 8:50am

Running and resourcing a veterinary practice is challenging. Coupled with the shortage of qualified surgeons, it can be increasingly difficult to take time away from clinical work to deal with the day-to-day issues concerning your employees. Frequently, practice owners and management report there are not enough hours in the day or senior resource to support complex staffing issues.

Time keeping and attendance

A common issue our clients experience is staff not turning up for a shift or arriving late. When employees occasion-ally arrive a couple of minutes late it is not generally a big issue. Prolonged lateness, on the other hand, is different. For practice owners and managers, staff regularly coming in late – or intermittent short-term absence – can have significant time and cost implications.

Repeated instances of lateness should be dealt with firmly and professionally. Set clear expectations with your employees so they understand and comply with this important workplace rule and have a full understanding of what the consequences are if lateness continues to be a problem.

On the topic of shifts, many practices provide their staff with the autonomy to arrange the rota among themselves. This may seem like a great idea in principle but it can give rise to issues around performance and attendance, or could see misconduct matters such as bullying evolve into bigger issues, yet go unnoticed for some time.

The back bone of any sickness management process is a sickness absence policy which makes it clear what is expected of employees and what they can expect when they are off sick. Discuss each incidence of absence through a return to work (RTW) interview, as soon as possible once an employee returns from sick leave. Review the employee’s sickness record before the RTW interview so that you are aware of the current sickness levels and if there is a pattern developing. Check that the correct absence reporting procedure was followed. If not, the employee can be reminded of these requirements. A note should be kept of such conversations as repeated failure to follow the absence reporting procedure may be treated as misconduct and dealt with under the disciplinary policy.

Any period of sickness lasting more than four weeks is usually classed as long term. Good communication is essential in all aspects of sickness management but especially for long-term sickness. Have regular contact with an employee on long-term sick leave to keep up to date on their progress and their expected return to work date, as well as to update them on events at the practice. This will help ease their transition back to work.


Dealing with misconduct issues are inevitably always tricky. If you have an employee who’s not meeting expectations, or is not behaving in an appropriate way, you must deal with the issue head-on and make a plan to improve it.

Resolving informally?

Before invoking a disciplinary procedure, you should first see whether the problem can be resolved quickly in an informal way by: privately talking with them and any other staff involved; listening to their point of view; agreeing improvements to be made; or setting up a training or development plan, if it’s a performance issue.

Dealing formally?

Even where you have a valid reason to dismiss an employee, it’s critically important not to prejudge the outcome and to follow due process. This is where your disciplinary policy is vital. Take all reasonable steps to investigate, explain the allegations to the employee, and give them a right of reply. Consider the employee’s explanation when deciding disciplinary action or dismissal. Offer the right of appeal.

Suspend employees if it is necessary to fully investigate acts of misconduct, but only as a last resort.

Employees should be kept informed of what stage of the process has been reached, and if they are on suspension their suspension should not last longer than is reasonably necessary. The clearer the process, the easier it will be for employers to show an employment tribunal they have followed a fair and reasonable process.

Alternatives to dismissal or formal disciplinary

Try a personal improvement plan: this will really help an underperforming employee understand what is required of them with explicit timeframes and resources. Meet with them on a regular basis to check their progress.

Suggest flexible working arrangements: poor attitude might be caused by a situation at home – do you really need this person to keep a strict shift pattern?

Try mediation: it’s easy to dismiss the person who’s causing most trouble. If you get to the root cause of an argument or disagreement, you might find that two opposing forces may become very strong allies.

HR Consultant at HR4VETS

Elaine Fisher is an HR professional with over 20 years’ personal hands-on management experience. She provides HR advice, guidance and support to veterinary practices at HR4VETS –a service provided by Eagle HR. She is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development.

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