Avoiding disciplinary pitfalls

Although the overall number of cases going to employment tribunal has dropped recently, budget cuts and the prospect of further job losses across the public sector are expected to push the numbers up again this year. So what steps can managers take, when conducting confidential meetings with employees, like performance reviews, and disciplinary or grievance interviews, to help avoid the pitfalls that could lead to a rise in the number of employment tribunals? 

Maxine Park, solicitor and co-founder of transcription services provider DictateNow, explains the benefits of recording and transcribing reviews, interviews and hearings: “Although an initial disciplinary matter may be dealt with informally, with a quiet word off the record, once the need for formal proceedings has been established, it is essential to adhere strictly to the organisation’s approved policies.

Don’t mess it up

Getting the procedure wrong and making a mess of disciplinary or grievance interviews in particular, generates a huge number of employment tribunals, with claims for breach of contract, unfair dismissal and discrimination. These cases will cost organisations considerable time, effort and money to defend, without taking into account any payout they may eventuality have to make.

Whilst it is obvious that following an organisation’s tried and tested procedures will minimise the risk of any claim being made, many organisations are now beginning to appreciate the benefits of making sound recordings of disciplinary and grievance interviews. In fact, some organisations now routinely record job interviews, performance reviews and other important meetings to ensure accurate records are created. The retained sound files also allow transcriptions to be made quickly, often within hours, to be offered to the interested parties.

Listening again helps add perspective.

Recording though, is not just about helping to get the procedures right, it can also offer new insight. For some organisations, sound recording also helps with recruitment when interviewing candidates.

A candidate should be informed of the recording and with consent, the sound files could be reviewed by colleagues or senior managers of the interviewer, to offer a different perspective on the candidate’s performance. It is far easier to form an opinion about someone you can hear for yourself,  rather than reading someone else’s notes.

It is best practice to inform all those in attendance at any meetings that a sound recording is being made for the purposes of accuracy and transcription. Covert recording is never a good idea as President Nixon once found to the detriment of his long-term career.

The ability to offer a sound file record of any interview, within minutes of its conclusion, is a major component of avoiding accusations the organisation has acted inappropriately, dragged its feet, or has something to hide regarding any personnel matters.

The use of recording has benefits for everyone concerned, but it’s important to remember that every word will be captured; the good and bad; intended and unintended. It is therefore essential, that those managers within the organisation tasked with undertaking disciplinary and grievance interviews etc., not only understand the correct procedure but can be trusted to follow it, even in the face of provocation.

The knowledge that an interview is being recorded often helps keep feelings in check throughout. It generally proves more difficult for either side to become too emotional or even threatening during a meeting, when they know every word can be listened to later, or reviewed by senior management.

Help managers keep an open mind
One particular aspect of the disciplinary process that sound recordings address is the common failure of managers to keep an open mind about an employee or situation until they have heard all the evidence.  Sound recordings not only capture every word, they convey emotion and offer context to the words spoken, which makes reviewing an issue for a second or third time much easier.

It is far easier to ignore preconceptions and form an accurate opinion, listening to a sound recording of people speaking their own words, than it is reading through a pile of handwritten notes, scribbled at the time. Importantly, sound recording equipment doesn’t miss words because it gets involved in a rapid exchange of views and forgets to make notes.

The switch to digital recording has helped speed up proceedings too. Now there is no need to wait for handwritten notes to be typed up and distributed to all those that were involved in the hearing or interview process, to approve that the document represents an accurate record of what was said and  whom. The process is also often lengthened by discussing and making amendments to the written record, before a final version was available for review by senior managers or attached to any employment record. It is often the length of this whole back and forth process that can often lead to a complaint being made against an organisation.

Plenty of time to explain
A common complaint from employees is that the managers involved in the hearing or interview process, failed to give adequate opportunity for them to put forward their case or version of events. Again, it is the knowledge that a recording is being made of the interview that will help ensure managers act appropriately, are not tempted to cut corners and give adequate opportunity to the employee to explain. Conversely, the recording and subsequent transcription will be useful evidence to rebut any accusation that the employee was not afforded the necessary time.

Organisations will also suffer problems when inconsistencies exist in the disciplinary procedures being followed. Whilst organisations work hard to standardise their approach, making sound recordings of all interviews or hearings can help ensure everyone conforms to the agreed standards. The sound files can also be used to review the performance of those undertaking the interviews, with appropriate training offered when the review highlights deficiencies in their performance. The review of recordings can also help shape and improve the procedures, to help address any issues raised during interviews or throughout the review process.

Smartphone is a smart solution
For smaller organisations, the use of digital dictation machines, or innovative dictation apps for Smartphones and tablets, may be sufficient for a small number of one‑on‑one meetings, or interviews. For larger organisations, with a greater expectation of more interviews and hearings, often with multiple attendees, the leading transcription service providers can supply conference‑style recording equipment, which includes a separate microphone for each attendee.

It is easy to set-up and use, even by the less technically able and allows an accurate record to be made of multiple speakers, even when they talk at the same time – far harder to capture with written notes.

Once an organisation has created a sound recording, the next step is to get it transcribed into a document format, ready for distribution to everyone concerned. Whilst it can be tempting to get this sound file typed-up using the organisations internal resources, this can have confidentiality implications, particularly where redundancies or serious behavioural or health issues are concerned. E 
F A growing number of organisations are now turning to external transcription service providers to help avoid accusations of potential breaches in confidentiality. 

A certificate proves it’s accurate
The best of these external service providers, well-versed in the process of transcribing hearings and interviews, will ensure the typist, usually a qualified legal secretary, signs a certificate of accurate representation.  Although this verifies the transcription is a faithful reproduction of the sound file, some clients will insist the transcription is checked for accuracy, by a member of the service provider’s quality assurance team, who will also provide a signed certificate of accurate representation.

Faithful representation is ensured by utilising verbatim transcription. This includes not only every word, but all the ‘umms’ and ‘errs’ that have a direct effect on the flow and meaning of the conversations being recorded. Unlike transcription of dictation where the skill of the typist excludes mistakes and hesitations, in interview transcriptions, any omissions may inadvertently affect the intended meaning of the spoken responses.

The failure to keep accurate records of any interviews or hearings can cause problems at an appeal stage or if a case proceeds to an employment tribunal. The ability to produce, not just an accurate transcription of any interview, together with a certificate of accurate representation, but the original recording, will significantly reduce any assertion that accurate records were not kept. Any tribunal is also sure to appreciate the ability to hear a recording of any interview, if it offers insight into the detail or emotions of the individuals involved.

Show you take it seriously
It’s important to understand that disciplinary hearings can also help improve standards of work and performance within the organisation, with the quick resolution to grievances preventing employees spreading gossip or damaging the organisation’s reputation. Recording and transcribing personnel interviews, reviews and hearings demonstrates how seriously personnel issues are taken within an organisation and shows how determined the management team is to get things right; first time, every time.

Although the use of external transcription service providers might be viewed by some as an unnecessary expense at a time when few public sector organisations can afford it, those individuals must ask themselves, how much any accusation that they acted inappropriately might cost the organisation in the long run?

About the Author
Maxine Park specialised in commercial litigation and was made partner at her firm in 1992. When she had her first child she worked from home. After the birth of her second child, she left legal practice, attained a PGCE and lectured law to legal executives, HR personnel and journalism students.

She launched DictateNow with husband Garry, to offer an enhanced and efficient transcription resource to businesses in a wide range of sectors including legal, medical, public sector, charity and parliament.

Maxine’s experience as a solicitor and home-working parent directly led to the formation of DictateNow which currently employs over 300 home-based typists in the UK.

Further information
More information can be found at www.dictatenow.com