Procedurally fair disciplinary hearings

One of the most common reasons employers end up at the CCMA, and on the losing side of the table, is the procedural fairness of a disciplinary process that ended in dismissal. Even though there may be ample substantive reason to support dismissal, an employer must follow a correct and fair process prior to dismissing an employee.

Just as a procedurally fair disciplinary process can be regarded as complying with the rights of the employee, employers have rights in the workplace as well, including:

  • The right to establish a fixed standard in terms of quality and quantity
  • The right to implement rules in the workplace
  • The right to apply discipline when these rules are broken

The right to apply these rules must be backed up by a clear disciplinary code to which the employees are held accountable.  If and when the employees do not adhere to the rules as established in the code, the employer should then be able to safely apply progressive disciplinary steps as needed according to the agreed guidelines in the code.

Should progressive disciplinary steps not remedy the transgressions, or if the transgressions are serious enough on first offense, more serious sanctions (in the form of dismissal) may be needed. However, prior to any sanction or dismissal because of disciplinary action, an employer must hold a disciplinary hearing. It is essential that an employer can prove that a hearing was held prior to any dismissal.

A disciplinary hearing is intended to ensure that a fair procedure is followed and that there is a substantive reason with sufficient evidence to warrant a serious disciplinary sanction, up to and including dismissal.  It is important to remember that the Labour Relations Act recognises only three circumstances under which dismissal can be considered a fair sanction:

  • Misconduct
  • Incapacity (including poor work performance)
  • Operational requirements (retrenchments)

However, any dismissal under these circumstances will not be deemed automatically fair by the CCMA. The chairperson of the hearing must follow three distinct processes during the hearing, each process to be finalised before the next process is started:

  1. The chairperson must first establish, by examining the entire process that a fair procedure had been followed and that the accused had not been prejudiced or compromised through unfair actions by the employer.
  2. The chairperson must decide, based on the evidence presented, whether to find the employee guilty or not guilty.
  3. The chairperson must, upon finding an employee to be guilty, consider all relevant factors including:
  • the employee’s length of service
  • previous disciplinary record
  • personal circumstances
  • the circumstances surrounding the transgression
  • whether the sanction is consistent with previous cases of a similar transgression and subsequent disciplinary action
  • seriousness of the offense
  • extenuating circumstances such as self-defence, provocation, coercion, and intent

The Chairperson must allow the employee to present arguments in mitigation of the sanction and he must consider whether a lesser sanction would suffice.

Standard Disciplinary Procedures

  1. The employer must issue a written notice of the disciplinary hearing to the employee in a form and language s/he can reasonably understand with the date of the notice, the date, time and place of the hearing, as well as the charge/s against the employee.
  2. The notice must include a clear and detailed description of the charges against the employee to be considered at the hearing, including the date, time, and the details and description of the transgression/s.
  3. The notice must be issued to the employee in time to allow reasonable time to prepare for the hearing. This time must, at minimum, follow the company disciplinary code. More time should be allowed in the case of more complex charges. Moreover, an employee is entitled to sufficient information and documents as requested to prepare for the hearing.
  4. The employee has a right to present a defence against the charges including presenting evidence and witnesses. The employer has a right to examine and question the evidence presented by the employee and witnesses, and the employee has the right to examine and question the evidence and witnesses presented by the employer.
  5. The employee is entitled to be represented by a fellow employee or a trade union representative. The employee must inform the employer of such representation prior to the hearing. Employers must take note that the LRA definition of a trade union representative is a shop steward and not an external trade union representative. Should the employee request outside representation the employee must submit a formal application detailing the reasons why outside representation is being requested. If required, the employee is also entitled to the use of an interpreter.
  6. The employee has a right to fair judgement. As such a disciplinary hearing should be heard by an objective and impartial chairperson.

After the conclusion of the disciplinary hearing, and upon receiving the decision made by the chairperson, the employer must communicate in writing to the employee the decision and, should the decision be that the employee is found guilty of the charges, the subsequent sanction imposed and the reasons for the sanction. The employee must also be reminded that s/he has a right to refer the matter to the CCMA (or relevant council) within 30 days.

This article is being provided for informational purposes. Contact Joblaw with any disciplinary process enquiries and legal advice.

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