Formal Warnings

Understanding and Issuing Them

Find out how and when to issue formal warnings.

© iStockphoto/MarcusPhoto1

Imagine these two different scenarios:

  • Scenario A – You've spoken with a member of your team several times about their poor performance, and created a performance agreement to try and solve the issue. But after a few weeks, there has been no improvement in their performance, despite the coaching and support that you've provided. What do you do next?
  • Scenario B – You discover a member of your team on an adult website during work hours. This directly violates the company's Internet policy, and it could potentially lead to a sexual harassment complaint. However, the policy says that you cannot dismiss them immediately. What do you do?

In Scenario A, the person has failed to demonstrate an improvement in their performance, even though you have provided them with the best possible environment to be effective. In Scenario B, the person's behavior is totally unacceptable, and this needs to be recognized by all involved.

In both of these scenarios, you may want to issue a formal warning. This is a type of disciplinary action that formally informs the person that there will be consequences if their behavior does not improve. These consequences can include termination of their employment. If a person doesn't perform at the level you expect, or behave in the manner you demand, you may need to dismiss them.

Formal warnings are usually part of an organization's progressive disciplinary procedure, in which you give people appropriate opportunities to change their behavior before you dismiss them. In many countries, labor laws require organizations to have disciplinary procedures in place so that managers cannot treat people unfairly, or terminate their employment without proper cause.


Time and again in this article, we'll say "involve your HR department," and "know the employment laws of your country." This is so important!

Employment legislation is often complex, and the right way of doing things is not always obvious. Mistakes can be expensive and time-consuming, and they can be bad for the public reputation of your organization. As such, don't rush when you're handling disciplinary issues, and make sure that you follow procedures and advice carefully and accurately.

Reasons for Formal Warnings

You may issue formal warnings to people for a variety of reasons. Below are examples of the types of behavior that are likely to result in this type of disciplinary action:

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