If your subtle hints aren't cutting it and your verbal warnings continually get discounted, it may be time to consider a warning letter. This is the part of being a manager that's not fun. However, going through the process of formally confirming and addressing employee performance issues or misconduct, can be a turning point for most.
Like other difficult conversations, your approach is crucial -- especially when you're delivering "bad news." To ensure the best outcome, it's essential that you're clear, concise, and consistent.
Luckily, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) put together a template for these cases and shared five critical components of an effective employee warning letter. I've added some personal thoughts to each.
1. Reason for warning
The first step is to ensure that the employee has a clear understanding of what they did wrong and the reason for the written notice. Some employees are entirely oblivious to their behavior and the seriousness of their conduct. It's important to literally spell out the violation and describe the outcomes of their actions.
"Despite prior verbal warnings, the employee has repeatedly come to work an hour late. As a result, individual and team performance have suffered. Deadlines have been missed, and teamwork has been inhibited."
2. Prior discussion or warnings on this subject
A written warning shouldn't be the first time an employee hears about misconduct or a performance issue. Typically, a warning letter is used when multiple attempts to handle the issue verbally have failed -- depending upon the seriousness of the problem.
If you still see a pattern after expressing your dissatisfaction, it's important to recall those prior attempts and ensure the employee understands why they are being formally written up.
Although it's tough, putting something down on paper helps managers communicate the seriousness of the issue and ensure that the employee no longer has the excuse of miscommunication for inaction.
"This warning comes after multiple attempts and conversations with the employee to address their tardiness. The issue was discussed during our one-on-one meetings on "X" and "X," and on "X" when I called the employee into my office after they arrived two hours late."
3. Relevant company policy violated
Referencing company policy reiterates that the issue isn't personal or an unreasonable expectation. It also points the employee to a precise definition of the desired behavior and parameters to follow to correct their conduct.
"The employee is in direct violation of the company's policy on standard working hours as described in the Employee Handbook. The employee signed the handbook on "X" date acknowledging their understanding of standard employee conduct."
4. Corrective action required
This is the part where you need to be hyper-specific. The employee needs to have a crystal clear understanding of your expectations. If future warnings or dismissal are necessary, those decisions will be supported by this section -- so make sure the employee confirms that they understand what's required of them.
"To correct the issue and avoid additional consequences, the employee must report to work by 8 AM ET unless a doctor's note or a manager approval is obtained and presented in advance."
5. Consequences of failure to improve performance or behavior
Let the employee know what will happen if they fail to abide by the corrective actions. In addition to providing some extra motivation, documenting and presenting the consequences proves that the employee knew the ramifications and was given an opportunity to improve.
Organizations that terminate employees for performance issues without documentation open themselves up to potential legal consequences.
"If the employee fails to change their behavior, it will result in immediate termination/a second written warning/probation."
Ideally, a warning letter would be preceded by a conversation with the employee to discuss the five areas above. Afterward, it's vital that leaders send employees an email confirming that the conversation took place and provide a digital copy of the letter. Although most employers ask for an employee's signature, the most important thing is that organizations can prove the conversation took place. It's important to get employee buy-in and acceptance, but it's not necessary.
This is one of those times when being a manager is tough. However, following a structured corrective action process not only clarifies expectations for employees, but also protects your organization from legal repercussions.