Records Retention for Verbal Warnings

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about records retention:

How long are verbal warnings meant to be kept on file? If an employee is given a warning with a 12 month review period, and they successfully complete this, must that file note be destroyed?

Signed, Wondering

Dear Wondering:

Your question involves one that many employees and supervisors ask. For one thing, employees think..if it’s a verbal warning why is it in writing? But, most organizations that have progressive discipline require documenting a verbal warning. That sets the verbal warning apart as an official action, rather than the informal redirection and correction that a supervisor may make often in daily work, but without documenting it. The question is, how long to keep warnings on file? The easiest answer is that there is no law about it (at least not in the US, and I don’t think in the UK) so it can be at the discretion of the organization.

That is, unless there is a union contract or other understanding between management and employees.And, of course, there are some human factors involved and organizational factors as well.A key issue is how your organization is set up with regards to HR, if any, and other sections. In some companies there are some basic files retained by supervisors and the more detailed files are retained in HR. In others, HR has all the files. I’ll include both situations.

If the actions of an employee merit counseling and strong direction to ensure there is not a repeat, the fact that an employee has gone for a year without anything similar would indicate that he or she learned from the experience or gained new habits. So, it is appropriate to remove the “official record of a verbal warning” from the file.However,some companies translate that to mean that every shred of information about it is destroyed. Then, if the supervisor who was involved is no longer present and the employee does the same action or has the same problem again, it can appear as though it is the first time. And the cycle starts all over.So, what many organizations do is to use the annual review time to have supervisors look at the personnel folder and see if there are verbal warnings in writing that are a year old. If so, they can contact HR or their manager (according to the company) and ask to have the verbal warning paperwork removed.

If supervisors have files, the copy of the formal warning is removed from supervisor files. The record of the fact that a verbal warning was given is retained in HR records, but without the formal paperwork and all the details: Verbal Warning, punctuality, 02-15-08. Annual Review, no further problems of that nature. Removed from file on 05-18-09. From the employee viewpoint, the actual oral reprimand is gone. From the employer viewpoint there is a record of action on file.I don’t know if that will be helpful to you, given your specific situation, but maybe it will help you think through the process. If you are an employee who has received a warning and are wondering about it, consider talking to HR about the overall policy and what it is designed to accomplish.

If you are a supervisor, you should also talk to your HR section. Or, if you don’t have an HR section, consider talking to someone in a company similar to yours that does. There are also some HR sites that give guidelines (not requirements, just guidelines) about such issues.These issues are significant in the lives of employees and the organization, so I agree with you that there should be some logical reasoning about records retention.Best wishes!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.