Verbal warning at work causes and procedures

Getting or giving a warning at work can be a daunting experience. From the employee perspective, it can be stressful to feel like you’ve fallen short in your work or displeased your supervisor. In a challenging job market, a warning can also strike fear in employees who may worry about their job security. After all, warnings are typically the first step in a disciplinary process that can ultimately lead to termination if the issues at hand aren’t remedied.

For managers, it can be challenging to know whether a particular issue is worthy of a formal warning. And if it is, how should that warning be delivered? There are many approaches to take and all of them have their pros and cons. Do you want to issue an informal verbal warning to bring up a small issue without making employees feel nervous or discouraged? Or is the issue worthy of a more formalized approach?

To help you navigate the types of verbal warnings, their uses, and the overall warning process, we’ve compiled the key questions and concerns about delivering and receiving verbal warnings.

What is a verbal warning?

Verbal warnings are a disciplinary procedure used to address unsatisfactory performance or employee conduct issues. These warnings are issued verbally, typically by the employee’s direct manager or supervisor. When giving a verbal warning, the manager should describe the employee’s conduct with specific examples of the performance or behavior issue at hand. Then, the warning should include mention of the policy violated or performance expectation that is not being met and what the employee needs to do differently moving forward.

These verbal warnings are often a precursor to more formalized disciplinary measures such as written warnings or performance improvement plans. They serve as a formal warning that an employee’s behavior or work performance needs to improve to avoid further action.

Types of verbal warnings

Verbal warnings are always delivered verbally, but there are different types of verbal warnings. The two categories are typically called informal and formal verbal warnings.

An informal verbal warning is typically delivered more conversationally. You can deliver an informal warning in a one-on-one discussion without a set meeting. Informal verbal warnings are a great way to address things in the moment. If an employee arrives late without a good reason or in an outfit that does not conform to the dress code, the manager may take them aside to remind them of the applicable company policy and issue a quick verbal warning. This can be quick and casual, but expectations should be stated clearly and the employee should be made aware that further action may be taken if the issue continues.

A formal verbal warning is typically delivered in a formal manner with a disciplinary meeting. With a formal verbal warning, a manager will sit down with the employee to explain the issue and lay out any evidence. They may also pull out a copy of the policy to review with the employee. Then the employee should also be given an opportunity to explain their side of the situation. Often a witness is present in these formal meetings, typically a human resources staff member or another manager. The meeting concludes with a stern verbal warning and an overview of what the employee needs to do or not do to avoid further discipline. Documentation should also be added to the employee’s file.

Verbal warnings vs written warnings

When the issue of employee warnings comes up, many people think of write-ups or written warnings rather than verbal warnings. As mentioned above, verbal warnings are often a precursor to written warnings. Because they are delivered verbally rather than in writing, verbal warnings tend to be received differently by employees.

Verbal warnings can feel less intimidating and severe to employees. They also allow employees to speak up for themselves and talk through issues with managers rather than being met with a pre-printed warning letter. With written warnings, a decision has already been made and an employee is being asked to sign a formal document. With verbal warnings, there’s more room for the employee and manager to each provide their input and problem-solve together. As such, it can be easier on morale and employee relations. For employees, a verbal warning is your time to speak up. If you need training, support, or resources to improve your performance, ask your manager now.

Write-ups also bring a greater concern around job security, so starting out with a verbal warning rather than a written warning or performance improvement plan can minimize potential turnover. This makes them a great starting point if you have a stellar employee that you don’t want to lose, but who may have a bad habit such as arriving late or missing deadlines that you want to address.

On the other hand, written warnings are often a better fit if termination is more imminently on the line. Written warnings provide a stronger source of documentation and they can express the severity of the issue more strongly than verbal warnings. If you’re an employee receiving a written warning, you’ll want to keep a copy for yourself and ensure that you leave the meeting with a clear picture of how to avoid any further discipline.

Common reasons for verbal warnings

Verbal warnings can be issued for a wide range of policy violations or performance concerns. Below are the most common reasons for issuing a verbal warning.

Attendance issues

Companies need to be consistent in how they apply their attendance policies. As too much leniency or unequal treatment in regards to attendance can backfire for employers. As such, verbal warnings are commonly issued for attendance issues such as frequent tardiness or excessive absenteeism.

Dress code infractions

If your workplace has a dress code, giving employees a verbal warning for violating it is common. Be sure to have a copy of the dress code on hand and point out exactly which rule the employee’s attire is violating.

Poor job performance

Verbal warnings can be issued for a wide range of employee performance issues, such as failing to meet productivity expectations, missing work deadlines, or producing low-quality work. Before giving a warning for performance concerns, check in with employees to verify that there aren’t other factors such as unrealistic workload distribution or inadequate training impacting performance.

Failure to follow workplace procedures

Following directions and proper processes is essential for maintaining a collaborative, healthy, and productive business environment. Your workplace procedures exist to streamline processes, maintain high-quality standards, and keep everyone safe. If an employee is cutting corners or not complying with established processes and has been coached about this already, it’s time to give them a verbal warning.

Behavioral issues

Sometimes employee attitudes and behaviors can negatively impact the work environment. If an employee is being rude or disruptive at work, it’s a good idea to issue a verbal warning before the employee’s behavior irreparably damages workplace relationships, productivity, team dynamics, and morale. Examples of such behaviors include speaking disrespectfully to management or peers, disrupting team meetings and derailing collaboration, or socializing excessively to the point that they or their teammate’s productivity suffers noticeably.

When should employers skip the verbal warning?

Typically managers take a multi-stepped approach starting with an informal talk or warning, then a formal verbal warning, followed by a written warning. This is the best practice for issues listed above like tardiness or minor dress code infractions. However, in some instances, you may want to skip the verbal warning and move straight into a written warning or even termination.

Instances related to bullying, discrimination, sexual harassment, or anything that could create a hostile work environment require thorough documentation and prompt action. If an accusation or complaint is made related to any form of harassment, managers should loop in human resources for an investigation rather than providing a verbal warning.

Major policy violations may also be elevated to written warnings on the first offense. For example, while you probably shouldn’t write someone up for one-off tardiness, most companies will skip to written warnings or termination if an employee no-calls no-shows (skips work without alerting management). Similarly, verbal warnings are a good idea for mild to moderate dress code violations, but wearing something with offensive language may necessitate an immediate written warning.

Verbal warning best practices for managers

If you’re a manager looking to give a verbal warning for the first time, here are the best practices and key steps to follow.

Have an informal talk before escalating to a verbal warning

It’s best to address employee concerns promptly before they become larger issues requiring a more formal verbal warning. Have regular performance management discussions and deliver ongoing coaching and mentoring to support employees in maintaining adequate work performance.

It’s also best to address any issues or policy violations informally on the first offense. Instead of jumping to a warning, have a two-way conversation to see if you can uncover the root cause of the problem. Is the employee unclear about a particular workplace policy? Is something going on that is impacting the employee’s ability to arrive on time or perform well? Some issues like increased absenteeism or lowered productivity can be due to burnout, so approaching it first from an open-minded, problem-solving perspective before jumping to a warning can be helpful.

Document concerns

When delivering a formal verbal warning, it’s helpful to point towards specific incidents. To facilitate this, managers will want to document issues such as tardiness, poor work quality, or dress code mishaps so that they can provide clear examples and details if the issue leads to a verbal warning.

Collect relevant documentation and review the company policies

Verbal warnings are typically related to a violation of an established company policy or your organization’s code of conduct. As such, it’s helpful for the manager or human resources representative issuing the warning to review the policy and print out a copy to share with the employee as a reminder.

When the issue is related to poor performance rather than a policy violation, it can be helpful to grab a copy of the employee’s job description or other relevant documentation such as role-specific guidelines and productivity metrics, or a copy of a customer complaint if applicable.

Reviewing the employee’s job description and any provided metrics or expectations can also help keep managers accountable. It’s important to only provide warnings for performance when an employee has failed to meet established expectations. If productivity expectations were unclear or an employee was asked to do something outside of the scope of their role and fell short, a different type of conversation may be appropriate instead.

Follow your company’s verbal warning procedures

While not all companies have formalized verbal warning procedures, it is a good idea to check with your company’s human resources team on any established policies or disciplinary processes.

It’s also important to double-check if a union representative or human resources team member needs to be present. For unionized workplaces, there are often stringent guidelines around disciplinary hearings and warnings.

If there are no established processes, consider asking other team leaders or in-house HR professionals how they typically handle verbal warnings. You’ll generally want warnings to be delivered in a fairly uniform manner throughout the company, so checking in on how other managers are handling the process can inform your process.

Document the warning in the employee’s file

Even though verbal warnings are issued verbally rather than in writing, there should still be some written record of the interaction added to the employee’s file. Your company may have an established verbal warning letter template that is used for formal verbal warnings, or you may just need to add it as a quick note in the employee’s record.

Be clear about what needs to change going forward

Set clear expectations by thoroughly explaining what the employee needs to change or do going forward to avoid further disciplinary action. Sometimes this can be fairly cut and dry in many cases, such as telling the employee they need to be on time every day and may receive a written warning if tardiness continues. In other circumstances, you may need to talk through a more in-depth plan on how the employee can improve their work performance and set a reasonable timeframe for this improvement.