Written Warnings Guide

Andrew Willis

Andrew Willis

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15 Feb 2019

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Knowing when you need to issue a written warning to a staff member is tricky. It can be an unpleasant process, but is necessary if employees are breaching company policy or acting in a way that’s likely to cause problems for your business or other members of staff.

So, where do you start?

What is a written warning?

You usually give this type of warning after an initial ‘verbal’ warning has taken place and failed to resolve the issue.

This is to demonstrate the severity of the warning the employee is receiving.

The typical order is as follows:

  • Verbal warning.
  • Written warning.
  • Final written warning.

When should I issue a warning?

It depends on the severity of the offence or breach of contract.

You tend to issue written warnings when the issue hits the sweet spot between first-time occurrence and gross misconduct.

If an employee commits a disciplinary offence but has never done so before and has a clean record otherwise, a verbal warning should suffice. That is, unless the action classifies as gross misconduct.

If a staff member commits gross misconduct, (anything that might bring your organisation into disrepute or serious health & safety breaches), then this can go straight to a final warning or dismissal.

Issues such as persistent lateness or failure to follow a director’s instruction may bypass a verbal warning, but only require an initial letter if it's a first-time offence.

Similarly, repeated minor issues may require a written warning, but ultimately it is at your discretion when and how you issue warnings for less severe occurrences.

The letter should include details of the offence as well as the consequences of it, but we’ll go into further detail on what to include in our template later in the article.

How to write a written warning

If you have conducted a hearing following a potential case of misconduct, and have found enough evidence for you to believe misconduct did occur, then you may decide to issue an employee with the official letter.

Before you even consider writing your warning, however, you should consult your company’s disciplinary policies.

Make sure your decision to issue your letter is in line with the offence. Also note whether it requires a conversation with the employee beforehand.

When planning the warning, you should gather as much relevant information about the issue as possible. This includes:

  • Date and time of the offence.
  • Any previous warnings given (verbal or otherwise).
  • Documents signed by the employee agreeing to company terms and conditions.

When writing the warning you should endeavour to be as specific as possible.

Specify the issue in detail, including dates, people involved, and the nature of the offence.

Also, include details of what will happen if the employee’s behaviour doesn’t alter their behaviour.

Usually this means stating they'll only receive one additional ‘final’ written warning before terminating their employment.

We recommend you deliver the warning in person, rather than by post or digitally, as this stops the employee claiming they didn’t receive it.

This also gives you the chance to ensure the employee understands the warning, and the implications if they fail to heed it.

Written warning template

You should tailor your letter to a particular situation. However, you can structure a basic warning like this:

Dear (name of employee),

  • State why you are writing to the employee.
  • State how long you’ll place the warning on their file, and if you intend to disregard it after a certain amount of time.
  • Detail the nature of the offence, incident, or behaviour.
  • Note how you expect the employee to improve (you may add a timescale of expected improvement).
  • Describe the consequences of further offences or failure to improve.
  • Explain the employee’s right to appeal, and the timeframe in which they must do so.
  • Finalise with a space for yourself and your employee to sign.

How many written warnings do I give before dismissal?

Typically, you give one verbal warning and two written warnings (one initial and one final) before dismissing them.

However, in cases of severe or gross misconduct, you may dismiss the employee without prior warning.

Like any conduct case, you should always conduct an investigation to determine the truth behind the claim. Otherwise, you leave yourself open to claims of unfair dismissal.

Employee queries

Employees naturally have lots of questions when it comes to the letter they receive.

Let’s answer a couple of the most common queries here, so when your employee asks you can reply with confidence.

  •  “How long does a final written warning last?” Typically it lasts a set period of around 3 to 6 months, and a final one lasts around 12 months. However, these are only guidelines, and ultimately it is at the employer’s discretion.
  • “Can I be sacked without a written warning?” Yes. But only in cases of gross misconduct, and even then the employer should conduct an investigation and you should have a chance to appeal against the decision.

For employees wanting to find out how to write an appeal letter, you can direct them to Citizen’s Advice or ACAS, both of which provide guidance and some free material on how to do so.

Staff members who are appealing should be aware they can only appeal within the timeframe set out in the written warning letter.

Disciplinaries are tough

Not only can they be difficult to navigate, but they can also be mentally and emotionally draining.

That’s why Croner offer support, guidance and on-site assistance if required. Speak to an expert about handling your disciplinaries today on 01455 858 132.

About the Author

Andrew Willis

Andrew Willis is the senior manager of the Litigation and Employment Department and assumes additional responsibility for managing Croner’s office based telephone HR advisory teams, who specialise in Employment law, HR and Commercial Legal advice for large organisations across the United Kingdom.

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