How to handle discipline in four difficult situations


It goes without saying that the team that works in our venue is the lifeblood of our brand. It is the staff who interact most often with our customers, and who are to be commended for a good reputation.

Unfortunately, however, it’s the same staff who can be to blame for a bad reputation. Poor behaviour among the team or towards customers is hugely damaging to your business, and must be dealt with swiftly.

Whilst there is plenty of information about managing your staff to encourage positive behaviour, there isn’t a lot out there that can guide you when a situation does arise.

In this article, we’ll provide a detailed step-by-step guide on how to handle the disciplining and dismissal of a staff member. This is going ‘all the way’ - not just counselling, behaviour management, and a warning. It’s not ideal to terminate the employment of a staff member, but when you do, you must ensure you go about it in a legally correct manner.

Here’s how.

Why do I need to let a staff member go?

As mentioned above, the reputation of your business lands squarely on the shoulders of your staff. As the manager, you may not always be there to oversee their behaviour and performance - so it comes down to their own behaviour to remain a great staff member.

Sometimes, this doesn’t work out. There are many reasons that a staff member can becoming damaging to your business, including:

Poor performance


Dangerous behaviour

Disrespecting customers


Refusing to follow instructions

No further need for the position

It is therefore your role as the business manager to recognise any of the above, and act quickly and professionally to remove these staff members from your business environment.

The process of ‘warnings’, and what they actually mean

Every employee should be given the chance to reach the standards you set and be given a fair hearing. Your HR policy should set fair and clear procedures for discipline and dismissal.

Your first step to managing poor behaviour prior to dismissal is having a warning system. This means notifying the staff member that you have documented their behaviour, and will be forced to take more dramatic action if it is noted again.

Warnings must be an official procedure, however - a verbal warning holds no formality should you eventually decide to fire the staff member. It needs to be communicated not only in a one-to-one meeting, but in an email, too.

There are no ‘rules’ to what your warning system should look like, but there are some basic steps you must not miss. These are:

A face-to-face interview with the staff member, preferably off-site and outside of their shift hours.

A formal email follow up that specifies the infraction, punishment, date, and management involved.

A signed form from the staff member - or an email response - to document that they have received the warning and understand the repercussions.

A warning must remain different to a simple telling-off during a shift. For example, you can scold a staff member for dropping plates during service - that’s informal, and to be expected. However, harassing a customer, on the other hand, must be issued with a formal complaint in the form of a warning. Make sure you and your staff know the difference between the two.

Establishing rules you’re comfortable enforcing

Whilst there are legal systems in place to protect hospitality workers (such as the Unfair Dismissal Laws) the rules of employment at your venue largely come down to what you as the owner decide. Every business owner has different parameters of what they consider to be right or wrong, and they must be communicated with team members well before they are even employed.

When creating or updating your venue’s employee behaviour contracts, ensure that you are establishing rules that you are comfortable enforcing. Don’t adopt rules that don’t feel right, just because you perceive them to be ‘normal’ across the hospitality space.

For example, many businesses follow a three-warning-system prior to firing a staff member. Why? Sometimes, an action might be bad enough for instant dismissal. Conversely, some sections of your team may have more extreme punishments than others given a problematic history. Either way, follow your intuition as a business owner, and lay down the laws that you feel comfortable in maintaining.

Formalising your exit procedures

Firing a staff member is rarely like you see in the movies, with tossed down tea towels and slamming doors. In fact, terminating a staff member is a delicate process in which you need to be very mindful of remaining unemotional and respectful. Failing to do so can land you in hot water legally.

One thing you need to give particular attention to will be the staff member’s exit process.

This will need to include:

Negotiating their final pay, which may need to include holiday pay or long service pay, depending on their employment status

Returning uniforms or other equipment belonging to the venue

Ensuring that any Intellectual Property belonging to the venue such as social media logins, recipe cards, or security codes are also returned and/or changed.

Having a formal checklist of the exit process will make sure that regardless of the circumstances, every staff member will be treated the same when it comes time for them to leave.

Find out more information about how to create a fair and legal exit process on the Australian Government Fair Work Ombudsman website here.

The people you can ask for help or advice

You are not alone as a business owner when it comes to handling the removal of a staff member. It can be an intimidating task - especially if you are met with a negative or threatening response.

So, who can you approach for professional advice on handling specific situations?

The Restaurant & Catering Association is a great first stop for advice. They are up-to-date with the latest in hospitality-specific laws and regulations, and can help you to understand what your rights are as a business owner.

For direct legal advice, check out hospitality industry experienced legal firms. HR Legal, for example, have offices in both Sydney and Melbourne, and are well trained in contract terminations.

Examples from the real world

Of course, none of this truly resonates until you’ve put it into practice. We spoke to our consultant Richard Edwards at Pragma Legal to get his advice on how he would deal with a couple of example dismissal cases.

Male staff member found texting harassing pictures and messages to a young female employee, in spite of the company’s anti-harassment policies which he knew about. Clearly breaking rules about cyberbullying.

“I hope this has been discovered recently, rather than something that’s been happening with the knowledge of the employer for some time. If it’s as clear cut as this (which it rarely is), then the male staff member ought to be dismissed safely.

It’s always concerning that some men just don’t get it. Some men don’t understand that their advances are unwelcome or inappropriate. Some men don’t respect women. Some of those people who claim to know what sexual harassment is (and who signed that they “read and understood” the sexual harassment policy) are the perpetrators of sexual harassment. It becomes important to define particular acts which are sexual harassments.”

Manager found to be stealing alcohol - seen on surveillance camera and did not have an excuse when confronted about it.

“This becomes a particular problem when owners turn a blind eye and allow this to happen. It runs the real risk of meaning the manager can’t be safely fired.

Staff need to be told what counts as theft. Many staff don’t see grabbing a beer to take home as theft. Have a robust policy which lists examples of what is and isn’t allowed. Things like over or under-pouring, over or under-charging, skimming the till, helping themselves to food. That ought to set a standard to stop it happening in the first place.

Beyond that, theft is a type of serious misconduct which can permit immediate dismissal.”

Kitchen staff member A got into a fight with staff member B - exchanged punches, yelling and screaming. Staff member B has now quit, saying he is too scared to return to work.

“It seems likely that Staff member A must go, because the employer is potentially at risk of claims of breach of workplace safety and bullying. There is a surprising Fair Work Commission decision which says that fighting at work might not necessarily warrant immediate dismissal, so it may take some careful consideration.”

Staff member coming to work clearly intoxicated, slow to react and found sleeping in the toilet. Has happened before a number of times.

“Being intoxicated at work is serious misconduct and can permit immediate dismissal.

The ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule is a myth. A single instance can warrant dismissal. Again, the employer needs to be careful that it hasn’t condoned this behaviour in the past, including with other employees.”

Richard adds that there is always the risk that a sacked employee might bring a claim for unfair dismissal. “In additional to financial costs, there’s the enormous distraction of being dragged through the unfair dismissal process,” says Richard. “When in doubt, send the employee home and get advice before seeking to end their employment.”

Ending a staff’s time with your venue can be a challenging process emotionally and financially. However, ensuring that you have a simple and respectful procedure and plan in place for terminating staff employment will save you a lot of heartache.