Formal Warnings

Understanding and Issuing Them

Formal Warnings - Understanding and Issuing Them

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Formal warnings let people know what will happen if they don't change their behavior.

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:

  • Misconduct.
  • Poor performance.
  • Unreasonable or unexplained behavior.
  • Damage to company property.
  • Failure to follow policies and procedures.
  • Offensive behavior or language.
  • Persistent or regular absence.
  • Misuse of company property.
  • Failure to follow health and safety standards.
  • Soliciting gifts or other inducement (i.e. bribes) from suppliers or potential suppliers.

(The employment laws in the country you work in will determine whether you need to issue a warning in these cases, or whether these offences provide grounds for immediate dismissal.)

How to Give a Formal Warning

There are two types of formal warning:

  • Verbal – You issue these verbally to the person, and then create a record stating that you issued a verbal warning. (Beware: in some jurisdictions you may need to deliver a verbal warning in writing!)
  • Written – You issue these in writing to the person.

Your organization's disciplinary procedure should include an outline of the stages to follow when beginning formal disciplinary action. Below are common steps in a progressive disciplinary procedure:

  1. Verbal formal warning – You tell the person verbally the reason for the warning and that it's the first stage of the disciplinary process. You inform the person of the likely consequences of further offenses.
  2. First written formal warning – You tell the person in writing of the reason for the warning and that it's the second stage of the disciplinary process. You inform the person of the likely consequences of further offenses.
  3. Final written formal warning – You again tell the person in writing of the reason for the warning and that it's the third stage of the disciplinary process. You inform the person that a further offense will lead to dismissal.

As a manager, make sure that you know your organization's disciplinary procedure, and consult your human resources department before you begin these steps to make absolutely sure that you comply with national law. These formal warnings may result in terminating a person's employment – therefore, at some point, you may need to use the warnings to defend an accusation of wrongful dismissal. It's important, from a legal perspective, to follow the procedure properly.

Meeting With the Person

Here are some guidelines to follow before, during, and after your meeting with the person who will receive the warning. Again, though, consult with your HR department to make sure that you have prepared thoroughly.

Before the Meeting

  • Ask yourself whether the behavior justifies a formal warning:
  • Involve the human resources department with what you're doing:
    • Provide documentation on the coaching or discipline you've already used.
    • Bring that documentation with you when you meet with the person.
    • Discuss your approach in detail with the HR representative before you meet the person.
    • Consider conducting the meeting with the HR representative present.
  • Gather any evidence you need to support the reason for the warning. For example, timesheets, customer service records, and statements from other people.
  • For a verbal warning, prepare a dated "verbal warning form" that outlines the following:
    • Why you're issuing the warning. Use broad terms to give you enough room to move to the next level of the disciplinary process, if necessary. For example, don't say that you're issuing the warning because Fred failed to use the proper safety equipment when working high on a ladder. Instead, say that Fred failed to follow the health and safety policy of the organization. This allows you to continue discipline for future safety violations, not just those involved with working on ladders.
    • What you expect in future behavior. Include your plan for supervising, supporting, and training the person to ensure that the behavior is improved.
    • A timeline for improvement, including any follow-up dates and the amount of time you'll provide to see results.
    • The consequences of not meeting those expectations. State that repeated misconduct or unacceptable performance may lead to further disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.
  • Prepare a letter outlining the same items as above. If you use progressive discipline, you'll probably need to include a description of disciplinary actions taken up to this point.
  • Make two copies of the warning. Keep one copy in the personnel file, and give one to the person being disciplined.
  • Decide whether anyone else should witness the meeting. The person being disciplined may be entitled to have a union representative or some other advocate present.

During the Meeting

  • Record the attendees, the date, and the time.
  • Keep the meeting short and focused. This is not the time to argue or discuss the matter.
  • State why you're issuing the warning. You may share evidence, if appropriate. When you do, make sure that any comments you make are backed by objective data and direct observation – you'll quickly find yourself in trouble if you rely on vague allegations or hearsay.
  • Explain the organization's disciplinary procedure. This includes the levels of progression, what to expect at each level, who will know about the warning, and how long the warning will remain in the person's file.
  • For a verbal warning, ask the person to sign an acknowledgement that the discussion took place. The person may choose not to sign the actual warning form, because this indicates agreement with the content of the warning. However, they must sign and acknowledge that the discussion did take place – and that they understand that the warning form will go into their personnel file.
  • For a written warning, the person's signature should go on the actual letter that's placed in the personnel file.
  • Discuss and document the action plan for improvement, as outlined in the warning.

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After the Meeting

  • Record any follow-up dates to which you and the person agree. For example:
    • By when do you need to see improvement?
    • Do you need a follow-up meeting?
    • When can you remove a copy of the warning from the personnel file?
  • Update the human resources department appropriately.
  • Treat the worker with respect and with a belief that they will meet your expectations. Remember that the intention of these warnings is to encourage positive behavior. The warnings are not simply a bureaucratic step taken as part of terminating this person's employment.

Key Points

Formal warnings should be part of your organization's disciplinary procedure. Issue them when efforts to coach and motivate a person have not been successful, or when a person does something that's simply unacceptable that must be corrected immediately.

Managers often use formal warnings to send a clear message to people that unless they improve, they could eventually be dismissed from their job.

However, this should not be the main aim of a formal warning. When issued appropriately, formal warnings can be highly effective for reminding people of the expectations of the organization, and for persuading them to change their behavior.