Avoiding HR Disasters: Employee Discipline in a Union Workforce

Dealing with disciplining employees is never easy, but it can be even more challenging when you’re an HR professional in a unionized industry environment. In addition to state, province or local rules, you must take collective bargaining agreements and union agreements into account. Here’s some tips to help you best manage these perilous situations and avoid turning disciplinary actions into HR disasters.


Imagine a situation in which Jim is a Caucasian, 43-year-old male mid-level manager who supervises night shift workers on a production line. He’s worked for ProduceX Co. for 19 years and is generally well liked and respected. Carol is a 21-year-old Caucasian female who began working at ProduceX six weeks ago, assigned to Jim’s shift four nights a week; she seems to be doing a good job and fitting in well. Carol has recently complained to numerous coworkers that she feels like Jim has been making inappropriate comments of a sexual nature and standing too close to her on the line for her comfort. Both employees are members of an employee union.

You are an HR manager at ProduceX. You become aware of Carol’s comments from other coworkers. How do you best address this situation?

How to Handle Employee Discipline in a Union Workforce

  • You should record, in writing, the statements of the employees who brought the complaints to your attention, and obtain their signatures if possible.
  • You should approach Carol directly and discreetly, and respectfully inquire about the situation. If Carol denies she has any issues with Jim, you should document your interactionAvoid HR disasters, ideally with Carol’s signature.
  • If Carol does wish to make a complaint or seek HR assistance to resolve her concerns, prepare a written memorialization of her complaints (signed and dated) and begin the investigative process.
  • A copy of each employee's statement should be kept in their respective personnel file; 

Be Generous with the Respect

Once you start investigating a complaint or concern, it will be important to make sure that the process is as discreet and non-partisan as possible. Be sure that you involve Jim’s union representative if appropriate. If additional information warrants doing so, hiring a neutral third-party (like an attorney) to conduct a formal workplace investigation may be advisable. Helping everyone feel like they are being treated fairly and their voice is respected is critical for maintaining great employee relations while working through complaints.

Make Sure you Understand the Rules

If your investigation reveals that Jim has engaged in wrongdoing that would warrant discipline, you should proceed with great care.

  • Cause: Even if your relationship with your employees is “at-will,” meaning that either party can terminate the relationship at any time, the majority of collective bargaining agreements only permit employees to be disciplined or terminated "for cause." “Cause” must be objectively reasonable under the circumstances, and not what a reasonable person would consider unfair, unduly harsh or arbitrary.
  • Corrective in nature: Many CBAs require that employees in unionized labor workforces be disciplined with the intention of bringing their behavior or performance into compliance with the goals and standards of the company and their position, rather than being merely punitive.
  • Progressive discipline: A progressive discipline system is advisable, and may be required by your CBA. Compliance with union contracts of this kind requires using a system of increasingly severe measures of discipline. Steps of progressive discipline are typically oral reprimand, written warning, suspension and termination, if an employee fails to correct his or her conduct after having been given reasonable opportunity.

If your investigation does not reveal evidence supporting discipline or wrongdoing, you should prepare a thorough documentation of the investigation and its conclusion.

Procedure Matters

You should also ensure that you protect a union employee’s procedural rights through the investigation and discipline process, even if not explicitly laid out in a CBA, by:

  • Making sure the employee has union representation during any investigatory interviews
  • Giving the employee the opportunity to be heard, on the record, prior to bring disciplined
  • Engaging in cross-examination of the complaining party
  • Serving the employee with proper notice of any decision regarding disciplinary action and any future hearing(s) on the matter.

Having the right HR/payroll system in place can help you keep track of the current, applicable union agreements for each employee. Frequent and open communication with an attorney experienced in union disciplinary matters can also help you navigate this potential minefield and ensure that you are taking the steps necessary to preserve all of your employees’ rights.

If you are thinking about implementing a new HR system that could help you with your HR and complex payrolls for unionized labor workforces, StarGarden can help! Click the link below to download our newest eBook, which illustrates some of the ways we can help customize HR software for unionized labor workforces, or contact us today to see how easy, affordable, and important an integrated system can be for you.

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