How to Know When to Give a Written Warning

Table of Contents

image for fizkes / Getty Images

fizkes / Getty Images

  • Written warnings are a necessary part of being a business owner; they ensure employees know what is expected of them.
  • Warning letters should be issued if an employee is turning in substandard work, ignoring company safety rules, is chronically out sick, and/or is making the workplace unpleasant for others.
  • Any warning letter issued to an employee should include details about the infraction, how the employee is expected to improve, a deadline to correct the behavior, and, most importantly, the resources available to the employee to meet the demands.
  • This article is for business owners who want to create an official written warning letter policy.

Small business owners may not think they need a written warning-letter policy, but it’s important to lay out expectations and hold employees accountable for not meeting them. It may be unpleasant to deliver a written warning to an employee, but it’s better than blindsiding them with a termination. As a business leader, you should have a clear understanding of what a written warning is and when to hand one out.

A written warning is a disciplinary letter or email to an employee spelling out what is wrong and how to fix it. The letter should state that the employee must make the specified changes within a particular time frame or face further disciplinary action.

Unlike with a verbal warning, employees can see and reply to a written warning. “It allows you to have a record of their performance,” said Michael Ly, co-founder of Humnly.

Key takeaway: A written warning states what the employee did wrong and what improvements are necessary.

Once you’ve created a written warning policy, it’s important to actually enforce it. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, but there are several reasons to put employees on notice with a written warning:

Poor-quality work is an acceptable reason to issue a warning letter. Too many mistakes, an inability to follow instructions and missed deadlines are examples of poor performance.

Employees get sick and have emergencies, but if one of your staff members is calling out most days or is constantly late, you may want to issue an attendance warning letter. This is particularly true if the employee’s productivity is suffering or the attendance issues are hurting the company’s bottom line.

The last thing you want is a workforce run amok. If employees choose to ignore office rules, they should face disciplinary action. The same goes for misbehaviors, such as being rude or disruptive to co-workers, supervisors or customers.

You may run into instances in which employees pose safety risks by not following regulations. That could be perilous to your business if someone were to be injured on the job. If you find safety violations, it’s important to issue a safety warning letter to the offender immediately.

Key takeaway: If an employee is producing substandard work, is frequently absent or ignores safety standards, it is probably time to issue them a written warning letter. The same goes for poor office behavior.

A written warning letter should be detailed and include as much information about the situation as possible. This is your official record and your protection if you’re sued. To cover all your bases, make sure you include the following information:

  • The employee’s name and supervisor’s name.
  • The date of the warning and the disciplinary action being taken.
  • A detailed description of the issue and whether it’s related to performance, behavior or safety.
  • The corrective action the employee needs to take as a result.
  • A detailed list of the resources available to help the employee improve.
  • A deadline to meet the demands.
  • The consequences if the issue is not improved by the deadline.
  • The date for a follow-up meeting to track the employee’s performance.
  • The consequences for not improving performance.
  • Signatures of both the employer and the employee, to show they acknowledge receiving the letter.

The wording of your business’s warning letters will depend on the industry you serve and the violation that occurred. Here is an example of a general warning letter from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM):

Source: Image courtesy of the Society for Human Resource Management

Key takeaway: Make sure the written warning letter is as detailed as possible, leaving no room for interpretation. Everyone should walk away knowing exactly what is expected.

You can send a written warning letter via mail or email, but either way, you should have the employee’s supervisor notify the employee beforehand. Usually, the letter is given during a face-to-face meeting with a third party, such as a human resources representative, present.

During the meeting, go over the allegations point by point, taking time to let the employee react. Spend a lot of time laying out the expectations and how the employee can achieve them. The employee should leave the room knowing exactly what they need to do and what will happen if things don’t improve. All three parties (the employee, the supervisor and the HR representative) sign the written warning letter during the meeting.

In the era of COVID-19, email and phone calls may be the only options. If possible, hold a virtual meeting so that all three parties can be present.

If the employee refuses to sign the warning letter, the supervisor and HR representative should do so anyway. Note the reasons the employee refused.

“It’s always good practice to document employee behavior, and one way to do so is under this policy,” said Karen Burke, HR knowledge advisor for SHRM. “Ending employment without that document can lead to discrimination claims and increase the risk of legal employment claims.”

Key takeaway: A warning letter can be sent via email or snail mail, but there should be an in-person meeting or video conference to go over the key points and ensure the employee knows what is expected of them. Make sure it is signed by all parties involved.

There are no laws requiring companies to issue warning letters, but they are still common in workplaces. Here are four major reasons why it’s smart for employers to issue written warning letters:

  1. It protects your business from lawsuits. Without a warning policy, small business owners put themselves at greater risk of facing wrongful termination lawsuits lodged by former employees. If you don’t have a record of warnings, employees can claim they were let go because of biases, not poor performance or misconduct. “If you have a policy on terminations, it will support you in the event of a claim,” Burke said.
  2. Employees know what’s expected. Business owners can’t afford to ignore bad behavior, particularly if it’s affecting sales and/or morale. Without employee warning letters, workers may not realize what they are doing is wrong. A well-written warning letter details what’s expected and provides ways to access resources to meet those goals.
  3. Workers get a second chance. With a written warning letter, employees are put on notice. They know their job is at risk and have an opportunity to correct the behavior.
  4. Transparency boosts morale. Employees want a good salary and fair treatment. If they feel they aren’t getting those things, morale and productivity tend to suffer. If the fired employee says a termination came out of nowhere, it could create employee strife. “Employees share everything with each other,” Ly said. “They will share compensation and how they are treated.”

Key takeaway: A written warning does more than protect your business from lawsuits; it boosts transparency and morale. Employees in need of improvement know what’s expected of them and get a second chance.

It’s up to the business owner to decide how many warnings to give employees until they are terminated. Some have a zero-tolerance policy and fire employees after failure to improve after one warning, while others are more lenient, issuing several written warning letters before taking further action. The behavior and the impact will dictate the type of policies you adopt. 

The length of time between warning and performance follow-up will also vary depending on the employee’s role. If the employee is interacting with customers all the time or is in a public-facing role, there should be a short window of five to seven days, Ly said. For most office jobs, however, 30 days is enough time to show real improvements, he said.

Key takeaway: The employee’s role within the organization dictates how much time they have to show improvements.

Terminating an employee should be a measured approach, but there are situations in which an employee should be fired, or at least suspended, immediately. Those instances include sexual harassment, discrimination, theft and/or violence in the workplace.

“If someone is engaging in sexual or racial harassment or anything deemed inappropriate at work, the actions may cause immediate dismissal,” Ly said.

Key takeaway: Serious misconduct – such as sexual harassment, discrimination, theft and violence – usually warrant immediate termination rather than a written warning.




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