People Management
8 min.

What You Need to Know Before Giving a Warning at Work

Andrée-Anne Blais-Auclair
Last updated on 14 May. 2024
Published on 25 Oct. 2023

Work warnings are one of those measures that no manager wants to have to apply—but that are unfortunately unavoidable in some situations.

Table of contents

Many managers will tell you that if there’s one thing they hate to have to address, it’s employee discipline. So, it’s no surprise that managers will often wait a long time before stepping in and saying something when a member of their team does something wrong. They might even end up waiting too long.

In the event of any misconduct on the part of an employee, it’s crucial to respond as soon as possible, in order to preserve your work atmosphere, team performance and organizational image.

Hence the importance of knowing all about warnings at work and being ready for when you need to give one.

This article covers:

  • What a work warning is
  • The three types of warnings at work
  • The purpose of a warning
  • When to give a warning
  • Best practices for writing a warning letter

What is a warning at work?

A warning at work, or work warning, is a formal message from a manager to an employee, notifying them that they have violated a company rule, standard of conduct, internal policy or professional expectation.

The warning itself is generally minor, but the consequences can vary from one organization to another.

A warning at work has no impact on an employee’s employment contract, pay or professional development. It isn’t a dismissal or a suspension.

Three types of warnings at work

Verbal warning

A verbal warning is a more informal discussion between a manager and an employee during which the issue or misconduct is clearly named and addressed. The verbal warning is often the first step in a gradation of penalties and is followed by a written warning and a final warning (the third warning).

Written warning

The next step after a verbal warning, when the problem persists despite an initial discussion, is a written warning. A manager may also decide to give a written warning right away if they consider the issue to be more serious.

What the written warning must contain
  • A detailed description of the issue
  • The company’s expectations
  • The consequences if the behavior doesn’t improve
  • As needed, the written or electronic signature of the parties involved

Formal warning

If the verbal and written warnings fail to have the desired effect, a formal warning may be given.

What’s the purpose of a warning at work?

A warning can serve several purposes:

  • Helping an employee understand their mistake and how they can improve, so that the situation can change
  • Helping to maintain a healthy working environment
  • Helping to maintain performance
  • Ensuring that internal policies and rules of conduct are followed by all staff
  • Serving as a reminder of employer and/or manager expectations

When to give a warning at work

Giving warnings at work is essentially the manager’s job. It is not an obligation, but rather one possible disciplinary action among others.

There are a number of situations in which it may be appropriate to issue a warning to a member of your team. Here are some examples:

  1. Poor performance: when an employee fails to live up to performance expectations.
  2. Interpersonal conflicts: if a conflict arises and escalates between employees, a warning can make them aware of the company’s policies pertaining to professional conduct. The same applies to recurring conflicts between the same employees.
  3. Non-compliance with internal policies: when an employee breaks company rules, like for instance: absenteeism without prior notice, repeated lateness, failure to observe the dress code, etc.
  4. Inappropriate conduct: if an employee engages in inappropriate behavior at work, such as harassment, discrimination or bullying, a warning may be the first step in a disciplinary process. The penalty is always proportional to the seriousness of the act.

Note: If the inappropriate conduct is serious enough, immediate dismissal may be more appropriate.

The importance of clear internal policies

There are many nuances involved when it comes to disciplinary action—which is why clear internal policies are so vitally important.

Many small businesses don’t feel the need to establish policies and write down the things they consider common sense. However, in this context, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. You never know when you’ll come up against a situation where you wish you’d had a formal policy to protect you.

Your employee handbook is an ideal place to centralize all your internal policies. Here are some examples of internal policies we have implemented at Agendrix that might inspire you:

  • Physical access management
  • The right to disconnect
  • Use of alcohol, drugs and medication
  • Prevention of physical and psychological harassment
  • Reimbursement of expenses and mileage
  • Self-isolation and returning to work after catching a virus
  • Wifi access
  • Dress code
  • Code of ethics
  • Health and safety incident management
  • Code of conduct at events and team parties
  • Manager’s guide
  • Equity, diversity and inclusion
  • Sustainable development policy
  • Pets in the office

What are the steps involved in giving a warning at work?

Here’s the process for issuing a fair warning at work.

Investigation: In order to fully understand the situation, gather information by examining evidence where appropriate, or by speaking to those involved in the situation.

Communication: Discuss the problematic situation with the employee informally, if possible. This may involve a simple conversation to clarify expectations. This step does not apply if the situation is already too serious.

Documentation: If the behavior persists, document the situation in the employee file.

One-on-one meeting: Organize a more formal meeting with the employee to discuss the situation. Give your employee a chance to express his or her views.

Decision: Depending on the outcome of your discussion and the seriousness of the situation, you may choose to issue a verbal or written warning, or take other appropriate action.

Follow-up: Provide clear guidelines on how the employee can rectify the situation. Follow up on the progress of the situation. This will give you the opportunity to offer your support to the employee concerned.

How many warnings before dismissal?

The million-dollar question: How many warnings are needed before an employee is dismissed?

It’s an easy question to ask, but a difficult one to answer.

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between disciplinary and non-disciplinary measures, and to discuss the importance of the gradation of sanctions.

Differences between disciplinary action and non-disciplinary action

Disciplinary action is taken when an employee deliberately commits misconduct, whereas non-disciplinary action is typically applied to an involuntary breach.

For example, if one of your employees is late to work because they tend to leave home too late, the misconduct may be deliberate, but if they did not properly see their schedule, it may be unintentional.

Misconduct can be deemed unintentional if an employee performs inadequately because they genuinely lack the skills or knowledge to do something right. But it’s voluntary if a member of your team doesn’t perform as expected because they failed to carry out their expected tasks during their work hours.

☝️ As you’ve probably gathered by now, there’s a fine line between intentional and unintentional misconduct. It can be very difficult and even tricky to judge the motives behind a breach.

Non-disciplinary action

Non-disciplinary action obviously includes having a discussion with the employee to inform them of their shortcomings; reminding them of your expectations; and making training or other resources available to help them remedy the situation. It’s also important to let your employee know what to expect if the situation is not corrected within a reasonable time frame—make sure to be specific.

Disciplinary action

Disciplinary action includes verbal or written notice, suspension and dismissal.

Graduated penalties

For both disciplinary and non-disciplinary action, the penalties should always be graduated. There are two important rules of thumb for graduated penalties:

  1. Issue penalties proportional to the seriousness of the employee’s misconduct or inappropriate behavior.
  2. Start with a lighter penalty before moving on to a harsher one if a member of your team repeats the misconduct.

Why apply graduated penalties?

The aim of this approach is to strike a balance between the discipline required to maintain a rule-abiding working environment, on the one hand, and fairness, on the other.

In other words, having graduated penalties helps avoid excessive sanctions.

An example of graduated penalties would be:

  • Verbal notice
  • Written notice
  • Suspension
  • Termination

Work warnings from a legal perspective

For complete legal information on disciplinary and non-disciplinary action, visit this site for Quebec.

Employee records: a must for keeping track of warnings

It is advisable to document warnings in writing and to be as specific as possible. This helps keep track of things and ensures that you don’t forget important pieces of information. It also prevents you from having to argue with your employee about what was (or wasn’t) said. You can keep warnings in an employee database software.

How complete are your HR files?

Centralize and leverage your HR data.

Discover Agendrix

Best practices for writing a warning letter

When writing a warning letter to one of your staff, it’s crucial to adopt a professional tone and to write everything clearly and unambiguously.

Here’s a checklist of everything your letter should include.

  • Organization name and contact information
  • Employee name and contact
  • Employee job title or position
  • Letter date
  • A professional greeting
  • Date and time of the meeting during which you gave the employee the warning
  • Clear, factual description of the problem or misconduct
  • Concrete examples if necessary
  • Description of company policies, rules or standards breached by the employee
  • Outline of the consequences of the inappropriate conduct, including future penalties in case of repeat offences
  • Management’s specific expectations for improvement. Specify what the employee must do to remedy the situation and avoid penalties in the future. Give clear guidelines and realistic expectations
  • Description of elements (training, support, weekly meetings, etc.) that you’re making available to your employee to improve the situation
  • Your signature and the employee’s signature

Download our written warning template

To make things even easier, you can also download our ready-made written warning letter template for work situations.

Further reading

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