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How do I write a warning letter to an employee who's performing poorly?

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Human Resources mentor Robert Hoffman responds to the following question from an inc.com user:
After several instances of carelessness, which have been documented, I need to write an employee a final warning letter stating that, if another instance occurs in the next 90 days, she will be terminated on the spot. Any suggestions as to what (or what not to) put in the letter? Are there any samples to be found?

Robert Hoffman's response:When trying to modify an employee's behavior, it's important to coach, document, and clearly outline the consequences. It sounds as though you've already taken some good steps. In addition to what you have already done, I recommend that you include these important steps, whenever you need to change the behavior, conduct, or work performance of an employee:

  • Be clear about the objectives of the discussion and what you are trying to accomplish.
  • Listen more than you talk. Let the employee express his or her point of view.
  • Indicate what the employee does well.
  • Indicate what the employee can do better.
  • Look for common ground, if disagreement exists.
  • Be specific, objective, and positive in your communication style.
  • Give examples of specific problems whenever possible.
  • Relate desired behavior to overall company objectives.
  • Distinguish between behavior that can be modified and gross misconduct. Some examples of gross misconduct include employee theft or violence. These situations may warrant immediate termination or severe discipline rather than a gradual counseling process.
  • Outline and acknowledge specific milestones and target dates.
  • Indicate the consequences of not achieving desired results -- including possible termination.
  • Hold up your end of the bargain; provide any agreed-upon follow-up and, if necessary, training.
  • When possible, figure out a method for measuring desired behaviors. For example, if you are monitoring production of documents, indicate the number that would be deemed acceptable. If you are measuring attainment of sales targets, offer an acceptable range.
  • Be consistent. If employees think you are acting in an arbitrary manner, they will feel ostracized and question your objectives. If other employees have similar performance problems, address them as well.
  • If the employee resigns, get a written letter from him or her.
  • Before terminating an employee, seek necessary approvals within your company or legal guidance.

A sample document that I provide to my clients appears below.

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D for Download Sample Behavioral Change (Warning) Document.

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Last updated: May 17, 2000




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