South African Labour Law: The purpose of discipline in the workplace and the concept of progressive discipline

All businesses need their employees to contribute meaningfully to the goals of the company. Disciplinary action is a management tool that can be used to achieve this purpose. Author Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great talks about getting the right people on the bus:

Those who build great organizations make sure they have the right people on the bus and the right people in the key seats before they figure out where to drive the bus. They always think first about who and then about what. When facing chaos and uncertainty, and you cannot possibly predict what’s coming around the corner, your best “strategy” is to have a busload of people who can adapt to and perform brilliantly no matter what comes next. Great vision without great people is irrelevant.

Applying disciplinary action fairly and effectively can help you to get the right people on the bus. If employees were allowed to come and go as they please, do what they please when they please and not follow the instructions and directions of their superiors, production and the provision of services would be severely impeded, if not made impossible. Managers ought not to be afraid of requiring employees to follow all reasonable and lawful instructions — after all, each employee has agreed to do just that, in terms of their contract of employment.

In South Africa, criminal sanctions used to be used to force employees to meet their contractual obligations. This was so under the Master and Servant Act introduced following the abolition of slavery in the Cape Colony in 1841 and legislation that followed. The South African Master and Servant Act was repealed in 1974 and in 1981, largely due to the work done by the Wiehahn Commission, all employees in the private sector were covered by the Labour Relations Act 28 of 1956. Further developments led to the introduction of the comprehensive Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995 which expands on the Constitutional provision that “[e]veryone has the right to fair labour practices”. In this modern era, the principle of progressive discipline is applicable.

Employers are encouraged to set their own, reasonable standards of behaviour and performance in order to ensure an acceptable level of productivity and efficiency. However, where employees breach the rules and standards set by the employer, it is expected that they be given a chance to correct their behaviour before their contracts of employment are terminated. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule — for example where the breach is so severe that it renders a continued employment relationship intolerable, the employer may have no choice but to terminate. Generally, however, employers are encouraged to “try to correct employees’ behaviour by [applying] a system of graduated disciplinary measures such as counselling and warnings” (John Grogan, Workplace Law, 11th Ed, Juta, Cape Town). This is known as progressive discipline.

An example of the application of progressive discipline is where an employee arrives at work late, without good reason. He or she may be issued with a verbal warning the first time it happens, the intention of which is to correct the employee’s behaviour and thereby avoid the misconduct being repeated. However, should the employee then arrive at work late again, he or she may ‘progress’ to the next step in the disciplinary process, i.e. a written warning. Should the employee repeat the offence a third and a fourth time, he or she will be issued with a final warning and subsequently dismissed.

The goal of applying progressive discipline is to assist the employee to correct his or her behaviour so that the misconduct is not repeated, but obviously there is a limit as to how many warnings may be issued. Which warnings are appropriate for which offences is the subject of another article, but suffice to say that the increasing degree of severity of the misconduct in the workplace (or how many times the misconduct is repeated) will determine what progressive disciplinary action is warranted and applied. The purpose of this is to allow managers and supervisors to drive increased productivity and efficiency by getting the right people on the bus!