Written Reprimand But No Former Warning?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a “negative attitude”:

I recently received a written reprimand at work for having a “negative attitude” and tone of voice at a staff meeting. I had never received a verbal warning prior to this. They claimed that “several staff and clients have complained about my negativity” but would not provide any proof. Is this legal and how can I dispute it?

Signed, Not Warned

Dear Not Warned:

Your essential question is if giving a written reprimand without a verbal warning is legal. Yes, it is. For one thing, such issues aren’t regulated unless something has occurred which harms the employee and is the result of bias against a protected group. It doesn’t appear that is the case here.

Even organizations that have procedures regarding progressive discipline allow supervisors to jump a level with approval, if it appears the situation merits it.You also ask how you can dispute it.  A written reprimand would almost certainly have been approved by someone at a higher level. So, the supervisor didn’t act alone on this. I would imagine this came after several discussions about it and I doubt it can be successfully disputed unless you can show the manager purposely lied.

Before you dispute it (and you certainly may want to do that) ask yourself if you have ever been informally warned, to the point that your supervisor would think you should have known that your behavior, tone of voice, facial expressions or responses, were considered inappropriate, negative or not helpful.For example:
*People have hinted about it.
*Someone has gotten noticeably upset with you on several occasions.
*Your supervisor or manager has tried to change your approach in meetings or has softened a remark you have made to someone.
*On an evaluation some comment has been made about having a more positive attitude.
*You’ve seen people frown or turn away when you were making a frustrated or less than positive remark.
*You’ve joked or commented on your brashness or tell-it-like-it-is approach. While you’re at it, consider if, based on what you know of your feelings at work right now,other than related to this, if you feel very upbeat and highly positive about meetings, coworkers and programs or do you, in your heart feel somewhat or very negative. If so, that might be coming through.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say honestly that I think it would be highly unlikely that a very positive and cooperative person who communicates well with others would receive a written reprimand for being negative. Or, perhaps it was just a one time thing but it was so excessive that your manager felt something had to be done quickly to keep it from happening again. Having said all that, if you really do feel this was unfair and you have others at the meeting who would support you, consider writing a letter to HR or to your manager and ask if you can have the matter reviewed. They aren’t obligated to do that, but perhaps they will.

Your point would not be to dispute whether or not they could give you a reprimand without a warning, because they can. It would be to dispute that you deserve even a warning, because you did not say or do anything that could be construed as noticeably negative. Or, you could dispute that you have responded in a negative way more than that one time. Again, you would need several others to speak on your behalf, and even then it might not change things.The other option is to ask your manager if this reprimand could be held in abeyance and you could be given a probationary time to show that you were not aware of how others felt, and that you will make a point of changing the tone or nature of your comments or actions in the future. Perhaps, since you haven’t had anything formal in the past, that would be acceptable, even if it has been more than a few days since you received the reprimand. If that isn’t possible, you may find you will simply have to work through this and keep moving forward, showing others by your work and reactions that you have been misjudged.

Best wishes to you with this matter. I know it’s hurtful and frustrating when you don’t understand why the boom was lowered without warning. That’s why I so often advise supervisors to intervene the very first time they hear or see something that strikes them the wrong way, rather than waiting and hoping things will improve.I always say about supervisory intervention, “The earlier, the easier.” In this case, if your manager or supervisor had said, a year or more ago, “That sounded unnecessarily harsh and negative. I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way, so be sure to watch that you don’t talk that way again. OK?”, you would have been upset, but not as much as waiting until now and getting something more formal.I hope this was all a very big misunderstanding that can be resolved. Even if not, I hope you are able to keep lines of communication open between you and your manager. She is probably feeling awkward about it as you are and will wonder how you are going to react. This would be a great time to show your strength of positive character.Again, best wishes. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

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.