Written vs. Verbal Warnings

Category: Newsletters Published on Apr 25 2017



I found your last two newsletters on writing a written warning very helpful. Would you clarify when it’s appropriate to use a written warning vs. giving a verbal warning?


Paul, PA


Dear Paul,


Great question!


First, let’s define a verbal warning. A verbal warning is when you sit down face to face with the employee, preferably in a quiet and private location, and have a conversation about behaviors that you would like to see changed or improved. Even though it may be uncomfortable, it is important that you are clear about areas where improvement is needed. And remember, this is a conversation, so seek feedback from him on what he is finding challenging about these responsibilities and create a joint plan for improving behavior.  If the next step will be an escalation, such as a written warning, that should also be discussed.


In general, a verbal warning is the first tool to use when employee behavior is less than or counter to what is expected. In many cases, the employee will listen and work to improve their performance. However, if the unacceptable behaviors continue unchanged, you will need to follow up. Depending upon the severity of the situation and the effort you see being made to improve performance, the next step may be a second verbal warning or a written warning. The written warning is a way to escalate your response and express the importance of what you are asking.


However, it is possible to completely skip the verbal warning step and go directly to a written warning (or worse). In cases where behavior is particularly serious, has endangered another person, or could result in a legal liability for the company, it may be advantageous to go directly to a written warning or other response. Be aware that in these cases, it’s usually a good idea to get feedback from an attorney or human resources specialist as you proceed.


Another reason to go directly to a written warning is for the shock value it creates. When a previously high performing employee shows steadily decreasing performance or increasing behavioral issues and has been unresponsive to informal feedback the shock of suddenly being given a written warning may be the wakeup call he needs to get back on track. An initial strong response can do a lot to grab attention to the importance of the situation.


When deciding whether to issue a verbal or written warning you must review the entire situation: the performance issue, past employee behavior, and the impact on the organization and others. When in doubt, get feedback from someone with more experience or a human resources professional.


Have a great day!