Written Warning Requirements

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about requirements for written warnings: 

I have just been reading up on Written Warnings and have a couple of questions.

1) If there was not a date, time and place of the offence on the written warning is this still valid?

2) Should a written warning be about the same issue and what’s the time frame for these before a  formal warning (level two) can be issued?

3) If the previous warning was about an issue over 12 months ago, does this mean the next warning would result as a written warning (level one) again?


Learning and Interested

Dear Learning and Interested:

Written warnings are part of the disciplinary process of organizations. So, how one company handles them may be completely different than another company. There are, however, some “best practices” that most companies use to avoid complaints or lawsuits and to provide equitable treatment for employees. Your questions cover some of those issues and I’ll respond to each of them.

1. A written warning should tell the employee what he or she did that was not acceptable and be specific enough that the employee knows what the warning is about. Many companies have a format that makes every detail very clear, but some do not. Let’s say an employee yelled a profanity at a coworker and was given a written warning not to do it again. The employee knows what he did, so the fact that there is no tidy format with date and time and precise words, doesn’t invalidate the warning.

But, if the company requires the warning to be written with specific details, then it might be said that a warning without those details is invalid. That would be up to HR or higher managers to decide. They might decide that it needs to be given again, with the details included. Or, they might say it will be recorded as a verbal warning. But, the fact that the format was incorrect wouldn’t wash away the situation.

2. A written warning is usually part of a progressive discipline program, so the verbal warning, written warning and higher discipline, should relate to the same issue, in most cases. They do not have to be precisely the same, however. For example, the first warning may be about using profanity to a co-worker but the next happens when the employee yells insults loudly at a co-worker but does not use profanity.

3. Generally 18 months is a time frame for allowing an employee to “start over”. But, that is only for minor violations. Let’s say an employee failed to use safety equipment and was warned. Two years later he once again fails to use safety equipment. He might be fired over it that time, even though there has been intervening time, because of the seriousness of the situation.

That last issue is a reminder that the progressive disciplinary system does not require employers to move through each step. It merely is a suggested way to approach issues that can be corrected by the employee, if given a chance. Some things are so serious that no progressive steps are required before a sanction is given (loss of money or time) or before the employee is fired.

The bottom line is that a company can develop their disciplinary policy as they want and as contracts with employees stipulate, as long as no laws are violated.

I hope that answers your questions, from a non-legal but realistic viewpoint. 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.