Foodservice @ Work

Dos and don’ts of employee disciplinary action

A hotel bartender received received four disciplinary warnings and was terminated in accordance with the hotel’s disciplinary policy, which explicitly stated that employees with four disciplinary violations were subject to termination. Yet other employees at the same hotel with more than 11 disciplinary acts were not terminated. The terminated worker had HIV and sued for disability discrimination (Greenway v. Buffalo Hilton Hotel), and a jury awarded him $1.4 million.

The way this case unfolded as well as the results of other hospitality industry lawsuits underscore the need for careful, consistent policies in this area. Here are some recommendations.

Follow “hot stove” principles. By that, I mean any disciplinary action should:

• Be immediate: Discipline should quickly follow the offense. Immediacy allows the employee to make a direct association between the offensive act and the discipline.

• Provide advance warning: Employees are more likely to perceive a disciplinary action as fair when they receive clear advance warnings about the disciplinary action that will result following a specific violation.

• Be applied consistently: To avoid the risk of legal proceedings and setting precedent, disciplinary policies must be applied across the board.

• Be impartial: Any emotions and personal feeling toward specific employees should not factor into a decision on whether or not to apply a disciplinary policy. Penalties should be connected to a behavior or a violation and not to the personality of the violator.

Create a code of conduct. If your company does not have a code of conduct or a clearly spelled-out disciplinary policy, one needs to be created ASAP and communicated with the staff. In the policy, spell out the following:

• types of behavior that result in immediate termination

• the different steps in of a progressive disciplinary policy (typically includes oral warning, written warning, suspension and termination)

• any appeals procedures

Conduct a fair investigation. To accomplish that:

• Assess the seriousness of the offense (i.e., does the employee need to be suspended pending investigation or terminated?).

• Identify any other persons involved/witnesses and interview them separately. 

• Set up a meeting with the employee. 

• Listen carefully to the employee without preconceived notions or judgment.

• Have witnesses to the meeting with the employee. Give the employee an option to bring a witness as well.

Document, document, document:

• Document findings from every stage of the investigation.

• Create a culture among your employees to write incident reports when needed.

• Document the disciplinary action taken against the employee and also state consequences for the employee if the noted improvements are not made.

• Document the employee’s reaction/action.

• Obtain the employee’s signature on the document noting the infraction, even if only to show that the employee acknowledges receipt of the document.

Know when to refer the employee to a professional. During a disciplinary interview with an employee, you might find that the source of the problem is beyond your realm of expertise. Hospitality managers typically are not trained psychiatrists or psychologists.

Last but not the least, acknowledge that the poor employee performance may be due to management’s failings. A pattern of performance issues could indicate a much-needed change in hiring or training procedures or broader standard operating procedures. A little introspection might go a long way.

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