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Dear Comrade: Can My Boss Make me Keep a Disciplinary Meeting Secret?

Dear Comrade is Megaphone's advice column, where union members and officials respond to your questions about work, activism, and the world. Submit your question here.

Image description: a man and a woman side by side, both with a finger to their lips. The man looks threatening, the woman looks intimidated.

Dear Comrade

I have been super stressed over an incident at work. I work at the reception desk of a private gym, and a few weeks ago I slept through my alarm and arrived 20 minutes late to work. As a result, there were angry gym-bros waiting outside on the street when I came to unlock the doors!

I knew I stuffed up, obviously. But my manager emailed me later that day, calling me to a disciplinary meeting, and explicitly saying I “cannot discuss the incident or meeting with anyone else, otherwise further action would be taken”. 

I had no idea employers could do this; I work for a gym, not the secret service! It really freaked me out. When I got home from work that day my mum asked what was wrong but I just told her I had a bad day and I wasn’t allowed to say anything more than that. That completely freaked her out, and she started jumping to wild conclusions about what had happened so I ended up telling her everything. Then I was crying all night because I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about it.

When I eventually had the meeting, I was visibly shaking but they just issued me with a written warning. I suppose I should be grateful that I kept my job, but honestly it was such a horrible experience that I’m thinking about quitting anyway. I also feel like there are rumours circulating about me that I’m not allowed to address!

My question is, why wasn’t I allowed to tell anyone about what happened, and what would they have done if I did tell someone?

Sincerely

- International Super-Spy


Dear Super-Spy

The simple answer to your question is that you were allowed to tell people what happened. You would have been completely within your rights to not just tell others (including your mum, but also your union rep) about what happened, but also bring a support person along to the disciplinary meeting.

Disciplinary meetings happen every day, whether or not they are warranted, and they can be a source of great stress and anxiety for workers. The prospect of being disciplined or even dismissed can seem very real. More than that, it almost always seems to happen so quickly. Managers and employers do this deliberately, in order to ensure workers don’t have the time to get other parties involved. 

Your employers deliberately misled you because bosses always have more power over an individual worker than over a collective.

They wanted to discipline you for a mistake - perhaps they even sort of wanted to scare you - and that is harder to do with a support person such as your union delegate or organiser in the room. 

(Psst, to get your union organiser along to one of these meetings, you’ll need to be a union member. You can’t sign up and demand an organiser’s assistance on the spot, so join today and thank yourself next time you’re in trouble!)

Having a support person in that meeting would have made that situation a whole lot less stressful for you. That’s why you are always, always legally allowed to bring a support person to a disciplinary meeting, and that support person can be anyone you choose. If your support person isn’t available at short notice, the disciplinary meeting must be delayed reasonably until they are available. Simply call your union and ask for their assistance, and email your boss explaining that you won’t be able to attend the meeting until your support person is available. Hold firm. Know your rights. 

Both you and your support person are also allowed to take notes in these meetings, and you should. Your employer cannot prevent your support person from speaking up, either, although they often try that one on (just one example of where an experienced union official is worth their weight in gold). 

Bosses don’t want you to make use of these rights, because getting a union official along to one of these meetings can raise all sorts of uncomfortable questions for them. Like, for example, is it really safe for a young person to open the gym early in the morning all alone? You may have stuffed up, but what if one of those irate gym-bros got abusive? Your error might have exposed failings in your employer’s systems, too. 

You’ve had a terrible experience, but you’ve learned some useful lessons for your working life ahead. Take it easy on yourself, we all have bad days. 

Oh, and comrade? Join your union!

-Mairead Lesman, Acting Director of the Young Workers Centre

Need help right now? Call the Young Workers Centre for advice and support. 

I slept through my alarm and arrived 20 minutes late to work. As a result, there were angry gym-bros waiting outside on the street when I came to unlock the doors! I knew I stuffed up, obviously. But my manager emailed me later that day, calling me to a disciplinary meeting, and explicitly saying I “cannot discuss the incident or meeting with anyone else, otherwise further action would be taken”. 

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