Sometimes employee behavior or performance gets so bad that you have to draft a formal warning letter explaining expectations and outlining consequences.  

The CEO of a small company has a wide range of performance-management tools at his or her disposal. The warning letter is kept at the back of that arsenal, only dusted off when there is a serious or chronic problem.

Typically a warning letter would be preceded by verbal conversations between the employee and his or her supervisor, both at performance reviews and in the course of the job. However, "the written communication, by its very nature, suggests that things are more serious at this point and also suggests that maybe [the supervisor's] prior communication wasn't clear enough," says Steve Kane, a human resources consultant based in Hillsborough, California. Here's how to write, deliver, and follow up on a warning letter telling an employee to shape up.

 

How a Write a Warning Letter for Employee Conduct: Does the Situation Call for a Warning Letter?

Though each company may choose to handle employee infractions differently, and the protocol will obviously change depending on the severity of the misconduct, there is a conventional progression for issuing increasingly serious warnings to the employee. "A lot of employers will start with a documented verbal warning, then they'll move to a written warning, and then a final written warning, and then termination of employment after that," says Darren Reed, a special expertise panel member at the Society for Human Resource Management.

If the warning letter is being issued in response to a serious one-time offense rather than a problem that's been developing over time, it makes sense to bypass the initial verbal warnings and proceed straight to the written reprimand. However, giving your employees continual positive and negative "feedback on their performance is the most important thing because any warning should not come as a surprise," says Kane.

But a written warning is often an indication that there has been some miscommunication on the employee or the employer's part, or both. "The issue with the employee may be that they're not understanding the importance of what you're telling them," theorizes Michele Williams, a professor at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations in the department of organizational behavior. A warning letter "cues them in that this is not something you're telling me in passing but this is really critical to my job performance."

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How a Write a Warning Letter for Employee Conduct: Common Problems

There are as many reasons to write a warning letter as there are types of behavioral and performance problems with an employee. That said some problems are far more common than others. "Attendance is the most common [problem] for relatively small businesses," Kane says. "Because, at the end of the day, as Woody Allen used to say, '80 percent of life is just showing up.'"

Other common causes for drafting a warning letter include how employees treat their co-workers, inappropriate dress, and electronic communications the company deems inappropriate, such as visiting social media or pornographic websites.

Yet another type of problem is more common still than any of the issues listed above, and that is the quality or quantity of an employee's output. The quantity of work an employee does can increase with additional effort on his or her part but the same is not always true of the quality. For example, "if somebody just doesn't have artistic talent, it doesn't do a whole lot of good to give them 17 warnings," Kane says.

As a result, a sympathetic employer will attempt to be more accommodating of an employee's repeatedly failing to make their quota. If it's a certain skill that the employee is lacking, you could help them secure training within the organization or even reimburse them for outside classes. Kane explains, "it's expensive to terminate employees so you want to help them succeed."

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How a Write a Warning Letter for Employee Conduct: Who Should Write the Letter?

Whoever writes the warning letter, and they are often ghostwritten by a human resources specialist, the letter itself should come from the employee's direct supervisor. However, "the actual decision to formally write [the letter] up might involve more levels of the organization," Williams says. "The direct supervisor may actually be too close to the situation to see some of the structural or supervisory factors that may be influencing an employee's behavior." When multiple people at the managerial level consult about an employee's situation, they can bring more nuanced insights to bear on factors inside and outside of the organization that might be causing the problem.

As for whether to consult a lawyer when crafting a warning letter, in most cases it's a good belt-and-suspenders measure if you can afford it, but some experts say it's unnecessary. Instead, the time to consult a lawyer is when you are first putting your disciplinary policy in place.

In certain circumstances, however, getting the input of an attorney can be crucial. When you encounter situations that are completely outside of your ken, or need to be handled delicately because of a confluence of factors, it's time to get your general counsel on the horn. For example, Reed says that if the employee in question recently "made complaints of racial or gender discrimination, yet the behavior or performance problem does exist, it's a good idea to talk to an attorney about how you might approach that person."

Kane notes that another reason to consult an attorney is "if you have reason to believe that there's some legal defect in what you're asking [your employees] to do." This is not to say you're asking them to do something illegal, but maybe you have a stringent policy that others might find unreasonable, Kane gives the example of a Hooters franchise having an unwritten expectation that the wait staff behave in a coquettish manner. The lawyer will sit down with you and say, "'gee, let's see if we can figure out a way to defend your potentially goofy policy," Kane says.

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How a Write a Warning Letter for Employee Conduct: Document Everything

Documenting your written communiqués is simple enough (just start a file and print duplicates of everything), but keeping track of your verbal communications can be a chore. Still, it can be useful both for reminding an employee of what you've already told them and when, and for protecting you in the event of a lawsuit down the road.

Once you're at the stage of issuing a warning letter, you may want to ask the employee to sign somewhere on the document to confirm that they received it and to verify that they understand and agree to conditions they must meet. Some employees are resistant to that idea but Kane suggests that "if they say they won't sign it, then the smart thing to say is 'okay, would you mind writing something that says I refuse to sign?' and oftentimes they'll say yes."

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How a Write a Warning Letter for Employee Conduct: What it Should Contain

There are three main components of the body of a warning letter to an employee. First you need to outline the prior conduct that was unacceptable then you need to identify, by contrast, the required or expected conduct. "Lastly," says Kane, "and this is what's most often left out, is the consequences of a failure to follow that prescribed or proscribed behavior." Reed notes that it's important to be as specific as possible both in the text of the warning letter and in the verbal communications that lead up to it. That way, there is as little room as possible for misinterpretation.

The tone of the warning letter can also vary dramatically depending on the severity of the infraction the employee has committed. At the two extremes, you can either create "a formal letter that's really designed to open the door for improving the employee's performance," says Williams, or one "that's really just documenting the reasons why you've got to let them go."

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How a Write a Warning Letter for Employee Conduct: How to Deliver It

Once you've written the warning letter, the most difficult task is still ahead of you. It's not the kind of thing you can just leave on an employee's desk or shoot to them in an e-mail. It has to be accompanied by an in-person conversation. This conversation is also a good point of reference for the employee in case "you worded the letter more harshly or more leniently than you intended to," Williams says. If you have a virtual employee, follow up on the written or electronic copy of the letter with a phone call or video chat.

Since small businesses often have closely-knit workforces with almost familial bonds, it can be uncomfortable for an employer to confront an employee about their behavior, which sometimes leads the manager or CEO to postpone the conversation until the conduct becomes intolerable. At that point, the supervisor's anger and frustration will likely come across in-person or in a letter, which is counterproductive. Responding to developing problems quickly and role-playing the conversation with a fellow supervisor or manager before reaching out to the employee can help you avoid such an outcome.

Even if you keep your temper in check, it is easy to accidentally humiliate the employee if you don't consider their need for privacy in the matter. Holding the conversation privately and holding it without the person's co-workers knowing are too separate things, but if you exercise discretion and communicate via e-mail that you need to speak with the employee, you can keep the situation under wraps.

Finally Williams suggests that you could soften the blow of the warning letter with positive feedback but that you shouldn't do so at the expense of clarity. "I think that it's very import to stress the positive, but at the point where you're writing a letter and you're thinking of firing the person, you have to make sure that you're not including the positive to make it easier for yourself," she says.

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How a Write a Warning Letter for Employee Conduct: Being Consistent

An important component of warning an employee that they need improvement is being consistent over time. You will begin to look foolish very quickly, and possibly even weather lawsuits, if you criticize one employee for his or her lateness and not another.

In addition to drawing on your policies and precedents in your company's history, one way to be more consistent is to have standard templates for documenting problems as they develop. The consistency must encompass not just the documentation, or even the warning letter itself, but the follow up actions you take. "If you say, 'one more time and I'm going to fire you,' and you don't, then you're in trouble," Kane says. You could very well lose your authority not just in the eyes of the employee you're attempting to penalize but in front of the rest of your staff.

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How a Write a Warning Letter for Employee Conduct: Following Up

Whether your employee responds positively or negatively to your warning letter can depend largely on how you handle the situation. If you've handled it well, then the desired behavior will begin to manifest in the coming days and weeks after your conversation. However, if you've let your anger or frustration with the employee seep into the tone of your written and verbal communications, they can respond with withdrawal behaviors – often characterized by a lowered desire to complete their work.

Another possible response is that the employee will feel personally slighted, and he or she might even want to take revenge of some kind. Of course the primary indicator that the warning letter has been a failure is that there is no behavioral change on the part of the employee.

If the employee responds well to the warning letter and changes their behavior, be sure to follow up with positive feedback for their efforts to change their conduct. If the employee reacts poorly to the warning letter you need to decide if it's because you handled the situation badly or because they simply do not want to accommodate the rules you laid out for them.

If the latter situation is the case, you want that employee out of your company as soon as possible so that they do not cause further problems. But if the former is the case and you were overly harsh in meting out your criticism, Williams says: "I don't think you can underplay the value of an apology. You can sit down and say 'I really communicated this in a way I didn't intend and I really value you as an employee.'"

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