The principle of progressive discipline is entrenched in Schedule 8: Code of Good Practice – Dismissal (the Code) found in the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995 (LRA).
Item 3 of the Code reads as follows: “The courts have endorsed the concept of corrective or progressive discipline. This approach regards the purpose of discipline as a means for employees to know and understand what standards are required of them. Efforts should be made to correct employees’ behaviour through a system of graduated disciplinary measures such as counselling and warnings”.
A verbal warning is usually issued for very minor offences. Where a verbal warning is warranted, an employer will usually not hold a formal disciplinary hearing. An informal procedure ending in a verbal warning will generally achieve the desired result, subject to a fair procedure affording the employee an opportunity to state his/her case prior issuing/receiving a verbal warning.
A written warning is generally issued in instances where the verbal warning has failed to correct the behaviour of the employee. Having said that, there are certain behaviours which will warrant a written warning, even if it was a first offence.
Because of the principle – Progressive Discipline – the sanction imposed on an employee should also be progressive in nature. Depending on the severity of the offence, a sanction might range from a verbal warning to a written warning to a final written warning and eventually leads to dismissal. Warnings do not necessarily have to follow this order though, unless the employer has made provision for this in the company disciplinary code.
So if the disciplinary code stipulates that for example, a first offence of “poor timekeeping” warrants a verbal warning and for a second offence of a similar nature, a written warning and a third offence of similar nature warrants a final written warning – then the employer is generally expected to follow its own disciplinary code.
Having said that, it is possible for an employee to be dismissed for a first offence, even if the employee has no prior warnings – but this will depend on the nature and severity of the offence, the circumstances under which it was committed and the provisions of the disciplinary code.
In a nutshell, in line with the Code of Good Practice, progressive discipline should generally apply. This principle is mostly codified in an employer’s disciplinary code/guideline. Receiving a warning, verbal or written must survive this principle and the order warnings are received is mostly determined by the breach/contravention that took place.
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