Written warnings are a common tool used by managers and HR professionals to address poor employee performance and misconduct issues.
In this article, we explore the purpose of a written warning and the procedures that should be followed to ensure a fair, consistent and legally defensible process.
What is a written warning?
A written warning is a disciplinary action issued by an employer in cases where employee behavior or performance does not meet expectation, or violates company policy.
An important part of an effective performance management process, the purpose of a written warning is to address an issue in a formal, documented manner, while providing the employee with a clear path for improvement.
A written warning typically includes details of the problem, specific examples, and the expected changes or improvements required. It should also outline the consequences of continued non-compliance such as further disciplinary action or termination of employment.
Why are written warnings important?
From an employer’s perspective, written warnings are important for several reasons. First, they provide a clear and documented record of an employee’s performance or misconduct issues. This record can be used to track progress, monitor improvement and provide evidence in case of legal disputes, such as an unfair dismissal claim.
Second, written warnings help to communicate expectations and consequences to employees, which can motivate them to improve their workplace behavior or to perform to a higher standard. This in turn can transform a negative occurrence into increased employee engagement and organizational commitment.
Finally, written warnings provide a structured and consistent approach to addressing issues, which ensures fairness and reduces the risk of discrimination or bias.
When should you issue a written warning?
The circumstances under which a written warning should be issued will vary depending on company policies and expectations, but examples of offenses that may warrant a written warning include:
- Ongoing absenteeism or lateness
- Violation of health and safety rules
- Poor quality work
- Violation of company policies such as those relating to internet or email use
- Unprofessional behavior such as harassment or bullying
- Failure to meet performance targets
- Dishonesty, such as lying or theft
- Failure to follow procedures or instructions
- Insubordination, such as refusal to follow directions from a supervisor
The severity of the offense must also be taken into account, as must the steps already taken to address the issue.
In cases of high severity, a written warning may be immediately issued. In other cases it may form part of a progressive disciplinary process, issued only when informal discussions and verbal warnings have failed.
Procedures for issuing a written warning
If the situation has escalated to the point where a written warning is required, there are certain steps that should be followed to ensure a fair and consistent process.
Note that the following guidance is not intended as legal advice, but a blueprint to follow. If in doubt, businesses should consult the relevant legal team to ensure full compliance.
1. Investigate the issue
Before compiling a written warning, it’s important to conduct a thorough investigation of the issue at hand. This investigation should aim to gather and document all relevant information about the employee’s misconduct, and should be conducted in a fair and impartial manner.
As part of this investigation, you should round up all applicable company policies and procedures, and collect witness statements if appropriate.
2. Draft the written warning
Drafting the written warning involves creating a clear and concise document that outlines the behavioral or performance issue and the steps the employee can take to remedy it.
The written warning should be factual, specific, and provide clear examples of the problem. It should also provide a timeline for improvement and outline any consequences of failure to improve, such as further disciplinary action - up to and including termination.
3. Review the written warning
Before issuing a written warning, it’s important to review it for clarity and to double-check check all details are factually accurate.
It should also be reviewed by HR or a legal representative where necessary to ensure compliance with company policies and employment laws.
4. Meet with the employee
After the written warning has been reviewed and approved, the next stage of the disciplinary process is to meet with the employee. This meeting should be private, confidential and conducted in a professional manner, with an impartial third party present.
During the meeting, the situation should be clearly explained. The employee should also be given the opportunity to ask questions, explain things from their perspective, and provide any relevant information or evidence.
5. Provide a copy of the written warning
At the end of the meeting, the employee should be given a copy of the written warning to review and sign. A signature is vital as it serves to acknowledge that the warning has been received and its contents understood.
The relevant manager or HR professional must also sign and date the document, and a copy should be kept in the employee’s personnel file for future reference.
6. Document the meeting
Documenting the meeting is an important part of the disciplinary process for several reasons - it provides a clear and accurate record of what was discussed, can be used to monitor progress over time, and provides evidence in case of legal disputes.
The document should include:
- The date and time of the meeting
- The name and job title of everyone present
- Details on the specific issue that led to the warning, expected outcomes and potential further consequences
- A summary of the discussion
- Any other relevant information
Both the employee and the manager or HR professional should sign and date the document to acknowledge that it is an accurate representation of the meeting.
Employers should follow up after a written warning to ensure the employee is making progress toward the expected improvement. This follow-up should take place at a predetermined time, usually within a few weeks of the warning being issued, and may involve actions such as:
- A follow-up meeting to discuss progress and offer guidance or constructive feedback.
- Reviewing performance metrics such as sales figures or productivity rates.
- Offering additional training and support if an employee is struggling to meet the required standards.
- Taking further disciplinary action if the employee has failed to take note of their written warning.
Tips for issuing a written warning
1. Be clear and concise
When writing a warning, it’s essential to be clear and concise, and to avoid using ambiguous terms or vague language that could be interpreted in different ways.
State the reason for the warning in a straightforward manner and be sure to compile well-structured sentences that are easy to understand. This will help the employee fully grasp the issue at hand.
2. Use specific examples
Providing specific examples of the behavior that led to the warning is crucial. The employee needs to understand exactly what they did wrong and what they need to do differently.
By using specific examples, you can clearly illustrate the problem and help the employee understand the impact of their actions.
3. Focus on the behavior, not the person
Avoid making personal attacks or being critical of the employee’s character. Instead, focus on the specific behavior that needs to change and provide guidance on how the employee can improve.
This will help to avoid creating a confrontational situation and will increase the likelihood that the employee will take the warning seriously.
4. Provide clear expectations
When issuing a written warning, it’s important to provide the employee with clear expectations for their future behavior. This means outlining the specific goals, targets, or performance metrics they need to meet.
Be sure to set realistic expectations that are achievable and measurable.
5. Be consistent
It’s essential to issue warnings consistently, so you’ll need to have a clear set of guidelines or policies in place that outline the disciplinary process. Be sure to follow these to the letter to avoid accusations of discrimination or bias.
By being consistent, you can help ensure that employees are held accountable for their actions and that the disciplinary process is seen as fair and just.
6. Offer support
It’s also essential to offer support to the employee receiving the warning, such as further training or coaching.
By providing support, you can show the employee that you care about their success and are willing to help them improve. This can also reduce the likelihood of future warnings as the employee will feel more confident in their ability to meet your expectations.
7. Explain the consequences
Finally, explain the consequences of failure to improve. By doing so, you emphasize the gravity of the situation and increase the chances of the employee taking the warning seriously.
Be sure to explain these consequences clearly and be prepared to follow through if no significant improvement is made.
When is a written warning not appropriate?
While a written warning is a common and effective tool for addressing employee misconduct or poor performance, there are certain situations where it may not be appropriate. For example:
First-time minor infractions - in this case, a verbal warning or a coaching conversation may be more effective.
Misconduct that is severe or illegal - in cases of severe or illegal misconduct, like harassment or theft, immediate suspension or termination may be necessary.
Issues related to protected characteristics - if the problem is associated with a protected characteristic, such as physical ability, accommodations or other supportive measures should be made.
How long should a written warning last?
The duration of a written warning will depend on the organization’s policies and the severity of the offense. In the UK, there’s no legal requirement for a specific duration, and it’s left to the employer’s discretion.
Typically, written warnings remain active for a specific period - such as six months or a year - during which time the employee’s behavior is monitored. Whatever time frame you choose to assign, this should be clearly communicated to the employee in the warning itself.
How do I handle situations where the employee denies the behavior or performance issue?
If an employee denies the behavior or performance issue, it’s important to remain calm and professional. Review any evidence or specific examples of the behavior or performance that led to the warning. Try to understand the employee's perspective and offer an opportunity for them to provide additional information. If necessary, schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss the issue further.
What can I do if the employee does not improve their behavior or performance?
If no significant improvement is made within the timeframe laid out, you’ll need to follow up with the consequences stated in the written warning issued. This may be a second or final written warning, or termination of employment.
It's important to follow your company's policies and procedures as well as any relevant employment laws when taking disciplinary action. You may also want to seek advice from a legal professional to ensure that you are handling the situation appropriately.