Employer’s guide to written warnings for employee discipline

Written warnings, or write-ups, are one of the most well-known employee disciplinary procedures. While nobody likes giving or getting a written warning, they do serve a purpose in enforcing company policies and creating a paper trail in the event that an issue rises to the level of termination.

Written warnings serve two purposes; record-keeping and communication. So it’s essential that you include the right information to clearly convey the problem. If you’re not quite sure what to include or when to issue a written warning, keep reading to learn how to navigate issuing a written warning.

What is a written warning?

Written warnings are a form of employee discipline used to correct poor performance or misconduct. Written warnings are letters describing the behavior issue at hand, the changes that need to be made, and a warning that further discipline may occur if corrective actions are not taken to improve performance or behavior.

Written warnings can be used to address a variety of issues, such as:

  • Frequent tardiness

  • Excessive absenteeism

  • Poor work performance

  • Dress code violations

  • Behavioral problems like poor attitude or inappropriate workplace conduct.

  • Disregarding safety procedures

  • Failing to meet deadlines

  • Insubordination

  • Violations of the employee code of conduct

The goal of a written warning should be to encourage the employee to improve, and to guide them along that journey. Unfortunately, that improvement does not always occur, so these warnings also act as documentation to help protect employers in the event that an employee is terminated. Having signed, written letters showing that the employee had received proper coaching and prior warnings before being terminated for a performance or conduct issue may help employers dispute claims such as wrongful termination.

What to include in a written warning

Written warnings are comprehensive documents that provide detailed descriptions of performance and conduct issues. Make sure you include the below information when creating a written warning.

Details of the employee’s behavior

The written warning letter should clearly list the details of any infractions or performance issues. Whenever possible, cite specific incidents with dates and relevant details. For example, when writing up an employee for attendance, you should list out any instances of tardiness or excessive absenteeism with dates and times. Give a clear picture of the issue and point out how their behavior is impacting the company, customers, or their team.

An explanation of the violated company policy or unmet expectations

Point to the specific company policy that was violated, or explain the performance expectation that the employee is failing to meet. You should provide a copy of the company policy, if applicable, or point the employee to its location within the employee handbook.

If an employee is receiving a formal written warning for poor performance, cite relevant documentation such as past performance reviews where the issue was discussed, any previously established performance metrics or quotas, or guidelines related to work quality to support the write-up. Employees should generally know what is expected of them and have received prior coaching before being given a written warning for performance.

Clear instructions regarding future conduct

Tell employees what you want them to do moving forward. This can be a quick sentence or two telling them that they need to show up on time each day or comply with the dress code moving forward.

It may also include more detailed performance improvement steps and quantitative measures of success (such as hitting a specific sales goal or productivity metric). Be sure to note any other follow-up steps such as more frequent performance check-ins or added training to be completed to support their improvement.

Potential Consequences If Performance Is Not Improved

Tell the employee what will happen if they don’t heed your first written warning. Often, employers leave this a bit open-ended with statements like; “further disciplinary action, up to and including termination, may be taken if additional infractions occur”. This leaves room for managers or HR professionals to utilize additional warnings, suspensions, performance improvement plans, or termination based on the severity of the continued offenses.

How Long The Warning Will Be In Effect

Often written warnings come with a probationary period or will remain on the employee’s record for a certain time period. Warnings should usually remain on file for 6-12 months. Additional infractions during that period will lead to a second written warning or other progressive discipline. If no further policy violations occur in the employee warning notice period, they can start fresh with a clean disciplinary record. This provides an incentive to improve promptly and ensures that a written warning isn’t looming over an employee indefinitely.

When to Issue a Written Warning

Find out whether it’s time to write-up an employee, or if you should hold off and try a lesser form of discipline.

When the Employee Has Failed to Improve After a Verbal Warning

There are different types of warnings that employees can use to address employee performance issues or policy infractions. The first step in the disciplinary process is typically a verbal warning. It typically covers similar information to a written warning, including an overview of the employee’s actions and a warning that further disciplinary action may occur if the employee does not improve their behavior or performance.

If an employee has already received a verbal warning and they continue to violate the same company policy or demonstrate an ongoing performance issue, it’s time to move on to a written warning.

When a Major Policy Violation Has Occured

Progressive discipline is the ideal approach in most cases, but sometimes you need to skip to a formal written warning on the first offense if a serious policy violation has occured. This often applies to policies regarding workplace safety, harassment, or discrimination where employees need to have a lower tolerance for misconduct in order to maintain a safe work environment.

In particularly egregious instances, employers may even skip the written warning and move on to immediate termination. Though you may want to seek legal advice when firing an employee without a prior history of discipline.

Frequently Asked Questions About Written Warnings

Still have questions about written warnings? Check out the FAQs below.

Do You Have to Give A Verbal Warning Before a Written Warning?

Most employers use a progressive discipline approach that starts with a verbal warning and then escalates to a written warning if improvement is not made. However, there is no legal requirement to give a verbal warning before a written warning.

Employers will often skip the verbal warning in cases of more serious misconduct that may cause harm to the business or other employees. This may include things like disregarding important safety procedures, harassment, or behaving in a manner that harms the business’ reputation with customers.

Can Employees Recieve Multiple Written Warnings For The Same Issue?

Yes, it’s not uncommon for employees to receive multiple warnings for the same infraction if improvement isn’t made following the first written warning. Often the second or third written warning will be considered the final written warning and will lead to suspension or termination of employment.

It’s best to have a standardized disciplinary policy regard final warnings, so that employees are treated fairly and consistently. Decide how many warnings employees will be able to incur before getting a final warning, and what the timeframe is. A common policy is that employees may be terminated if they incur three written warnings within a set time period.

Who Should Be Present When Issuing a Written Warning?

Supervisors or managers wil typically want a witness present at the disciplinary hearing where a written warning will be given. Most commonly, an HR representative will be invited to the meeting. For union-covered employees, a union representative may also be present.

Avoid having other parties, such as co-workers, present or within earshot. Receiving a written warning is a stressful experience, so be respectful of the employee by delivering the warning in a private area such as a meeting room or a private office in the HR department. Avoid giving warnings at the employee’s desk if you have an open office layout.

Who Gets A Copy Of The Written Warning?

The employee should be presented with a written copy of the warning letter to read and sign. The supervisor or a human resources team member will also sign the document. The employee should be provided a copy for their records and another copy should be stored in their personnel file.

Can Employees Appeal Written Warnings?

There should be some form of appeal procedure in place in the event that an employee wants to dispute the warning. This often requires the employee to submit a rebuttal letter to the HR department with their evidence or explanation of the matter.

Appeals should be a rare occurrence if you’re doing adequate research and investigation before writing up an employee. If you have your facts straight, cite specific evidence or examples to support the warning, and provided a prior verbal warning to the employee, there shouldn’t be much disagreement and the employee will likely have seen the warning coming.