When Is A Written Warning Not A Written Warning?


A co-worker was taken to one side to be given a verbal warning. This was followed up 4 days later by a harsh letter, but the title of the letter was verbal warning, not written warning. The employers are claiming the letter was not a written warning, but a recording of the verbal warning. When is a written warning not a written warning please?


Disability Adviser


Dear Disability Adviser:

Your question is frequently asked! From the viewpoint of human emotions, any warning that appears in writing is written. But from an organizational and legal perspective that is not the case.

The terms written warning and verbal warning do not refer to the pieces of paper but to a stage in the progressive discipline policy of a company. Stages of progressive discipline are required for legal support of management disciplinary actions and so is documentation. There may be times when a situation is so serious that a supervisor can jump over one stage and go directly to another one, but for most performance or behavior issues, the stages are effective for correcting behavior without serious punitive action. Here is an overview of what I teach on the subject, and it reflects best practices in most settings, whether in the U.S. or the U.K.:

The three first steps to correction of undesirable behavior or performance:

1. Verbal counseling is an attempt by a supervisor to redirect behavior by discovering root causes and allowing the employee an opportunity to discuss mitigation. The picture of verbal counseling is, for most of us, less tense and more supportive and often is part of informal supervisor/employee interactions. Verbal counseling may or may not formally documented according to the nature of the conversation. For example, a supervisor might verbally counsel someone over coffee and tell him or her that he is concerned about a behavior and wants to know what is going on. That counseling would not require official documentation, but an email to the employee thanking him for his openness and supporting improved behavior, would provide informal documentation. A note in the supervisor’s planner that a conversation took place might also be considered documentation. Documentation at some level is important to establish that an attempt was made by the supervisor to correct performance in a supportive way.

A possible documentation email: Dear Karen, Our conversation yesterday about you not leaving your worksite early was a very important one. I felt good about the fact that you understood the importance of your job and how much you are needed, right until work is done at 4 p.m.

Yesterday when I saw you putting your things away before closing time, I was concerned. You could have gotten in serious trouble if you had left early. If you have a situation in the future that you think will require you to leave early, please ask me several days in advance if possible and I’ll do what I can to help you adjust your schedule. The important thing is that we actively communicate and I felt we were able to do that yesterday.

As I told you yesterday, I appreciate your good work and especially your courtesy to clients who need assistance.

2. A verbal warning is the first step in the progressive discipline program of most organizations. It is directed at specific behavior with a warning that if the behavior continues more serious action will take place. Often a supervisor on-site has already corrected the employee and immediately or close to the time of the event, so the verbal warning will be the second time the matter has been discussed, but it is necessary to establish the progressive discipline stages. The supervisor on behalf of management and at their direction administers the Verbal Warning.

A verbal warning should be as well-planned as a written warning, in that it should be given in private setting with documentation made and kept in the employee’s file until a purge date, as well as given to the employee.

The documentation does not constitute a written warning for the purpose of progressive discipline, it is precisely what is says: A documentation (written record) to prove that the employee was warned once, and it is required if ever the employer has to prove that an employee was given a chance to correct their behavior. It is not the format of the documentation that makes a warning written or verbal, but rather the stage of the progressive discipline program that has been reached.

The documentation should only cover the issues that were covered in the verbal warning and when possible should be given at the time of the verbal warning rather than being written afterwards. The advantage of writing it afterwards is that the supervisor can document the nature of the interview that took place at the time of the verbal warning. The disadvantage of writing it afterwards and sending it to the employee, is that it keeps bringing up an issue that may have already been resolved.

The verbal warning documentation should be brief but can be less formally written than an official written warning: Dear Karen Rider, The purpose of this letter is to provide a written record of the Verbal Warning you received from me today, June 23, 2005. Yesterday, on June 22, 2005 I saw that you had left the worksite before quitting time, which is a violation of RR 302- Leaving Worksite Without Permission. I tried to contact you by cell phone but was unable to do so. When I talked to you today you said you had a doctors appointment at 4:30 on June 22, and left work early to get there on time.

On May 10th, 2005 I counseled you about making sure you stay at your worksite until closing time because I had seen you putting your things away ten minutes before closing and had directed you to return to your work activities. At that time you said you understood that you should not leave work early. I instructed you to ask permission if you felt you needed to leave.

When I gave you the official Verbal Warning today, I again instructed you to ask for permission to leave early in the future. I also told you that if you leave without permission again you could be subject to more serious discipline in our progressive discipline program. This Verbal Warning will be in effect for one year from today.

Please contact me if you have questions about this documentation or the issues to which it refers.

3. A written warning is the next step in the progressive discipline program. Often the employee has been given an immediate verbal correction or reprimand and told not do an action again or to improve work. That supervisory correction is not part of the official discipline process. The official Written Warning (I capitalize it to show it is official) is part of the formal organizational process and is usually given on the instructions of HR or managers. The written warning is given in a private interview or mailed to the employee. The private interview is much better, in that allows a continuing relationship with the supervisor.

The written warning is more formal: Dear Karen Rider, This is an official Written Warning about your violation of RR-302, Leaving Worksite Without Permission. On June 23, 2005 you were given an official Verbal Warning about the same violation. At that time you were told that further violations could result in progressively more severe discipline. Yesterday, on June 26 you were not at your worksite at 4 p.m. Investigation disclosed that you left work at 3:50 p.m. When I contacted you on your cell phone you said you had a family function to attend. At that time it was 4:05 p.m. and I did not order you to return to your worksite since your workday was officially over.

You were in violation of RR-302 for the second time in two weeks. This Written Warning advises you that if you violate this rule again you may be subject to more severe action, including dismissal. This Written Warning will be in effect for two years from today.

If you have questions about this matter you may direct them to me or to Bill Edwards, Director of Human Resources.

So, those are the first three stages…each resulting in something in writing to the employee, but each called something different: Verbal counseling, verbal warning, written warning.

I hope that is helpful to you. I know that many employees perceive the written documentation of a verbal action as a written action. Usually once they understand that the terms verbal and written in this context refer to a stage in a process rather than a format, they accept it, even if they do not agree with it.

Incidentally, you ought to SEE how complicated this gets when an organization has unofficial counseling, such as I mentioned and also Official Verbal Counseling, Verbal Warning, Written Warning, Verbal Reprimand, Written Reprimand, Written Intervention and finally, Performance Improvement Plan! Every one of those seems to the employee to be about the same thing, but they all have a different function. Actually, they are all designed to keep the employee from going higher in the disciplinary levels by changing the behavior that is a problem.

Apparently there are other issues operating in the matter about which you are concerned, and I hope those get worked out as well.

Tina Lewis Rowe The Workplace Doctors Both oral and written communication is important in establishing a WEGO working relationship. Each has its sequential role in policy and practice.

Follow Up: Thank you for your explanation I can see the point you are making. What would be the status a letter which is considered much more formal and harsh in tone than the examples you give and which outline aspects which were not included in the informal verbal interview and which also indicates a possibility of dismissal? I would appreciate your thoughts on this. This seems to me to be bridging two steps in the process. This is the message I sent back to Ms. Hall and the thanks she sent back to me.

You asked: What would be the status of a letter which is considered much more formal and harsh in tone than the examples you give and which outline aspects which were not included in the informal verbal interview and which also indicates a possibility of dismissal? I would appreciate your thoughts on this. This seems to me to be bridging two steps in the process.

Without knowing the circumstances, let me use the same situation I mentioned before….Ms. Rider, who left her worksite early. Here’s something she might receive: ****************** Dear Karen Rider, This letter is to inform you that your actions of leaving your worksite early as you did yesterday, June 22, will not be tolerated and may make you subject to discipline, up to and including dismissal.

This action not only indicates your lack of compliance with rules, but also an apparent attitude about respect for the organization. Further, your work has been less than standard in several areas and you have failed to correct those deficiencies when they were brought to your attention.

There must be a change in your attitude and behavior if you intend to remain with Widget Corporation. Starting today and for the next two weeks you will be receiving training materials regarding rules and regulations via email which you will be expected to read, print and sign to indicate your understanding, then return them to your supervisor for filing. You are also hereby notified that any violation of rule of regulation will be considered in the light of these recent events.

********************* THAT would be more harsh, include things not mentioned in the first situation and clearly indicating that the employee is on her last legs with the company. Here is the way I would consider that, based on what the letter to which you refer contains: 1. If it outlines steps required for improvement, especially if there are indications of supervisory involvement, I’d call it a Reprimand and Performance Improvement Plan, which is usually the last step before either the employee improves or is dismissed.

2. If it only reprimands, I’d call it a Written Reprimand, but I would say it should not include things that have not been investigated and proven or were not discussed with the employee.

If the employee has had several things discussed with her in the past, there might be a reason to include it, to say, “See? All these things are piling up!” That would not require recent conversations about it. Sometimes a supervisor will warn someone, then think about it or talk about it to the boss and they take it much more seriously. Next thing you know, the matter has escalated far past what it started to be.

Here’s my general view: Unless there are union issues involved……or even if there are…….. the most important thing is to get the underlying problems cleared up. I would like the employee to ask for a meeting with the supervisor who corrected her and the HR staff, and find out just what is going on. Or, just to the supervisor if she thinks that would help. The easiest way, is to say, “I see what you mean about you viewing this as a written documentation of a verbal warning. But it sounds much harsher to me, no matter what it is called officially, and it mentions things my you didn’t talk to me about before. How serious is the problem? Am I on the verge of being dismissed? If I am, what can I do to make things better? I don’t want to feel that I’m teetering on the edge and I know I’m trying to do good work. So, can you help me understand this better?”

Or something like that. The key is to let them know there is a concern and that the employee wants to know where she stands. Often when that is confronted supervisors and managers hasten to say that no, there is no risk to employment. Or, they say yes there is and at least the employee knows how bad things are!

Before that, the employee would benefit from listing the things that have already been said to her about problems and what she has done to respond to those. That would be a good thing to bring up in the meeting if she can show she has made an effort to correct issues.

I say that, because I would doubt this is the very first time there has been a conflict with the supervisor or with management. Usually things don’t jump from fine to rotten that quickly! In the meantime, look at company policies about progressive discipline and see if that might give you an idea of where things are. If they hadn’t said it was a verbal warning, I might have thought they’d jumped to a higher level right away….and that’s sometimes the right thing to do. But if they say it’s at the lowest level of discipline it makes one wonder what would be worse! (I’m making a value judgment based on what you said, of course, but you seem to be reporting carefully and accurately.)

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.