Verbal Warning: Meaning and When to Use in The Workplace

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This article delves into the world of verbal warnings, exploring their purpose, significance, and best practices for issuing them.

What is a verbal warning?

An informal verbal warning is an action an employer or supervisor takes to address an employee's misconduct or underperformance.

It involves a direct conversation between the employer or supervisor and the employee, wherein the concerns are communicated, expectations are clarified, and an opportunity for improvement is provided.

A verbal warning serves as an initial step in the progressive discipline process and aims to address issues promptly and encourage positive changes in employee behaviour or performance.

It is an effective means of conveying the seriousness of the situation while allowing for open communication and the opportunity for the employee to rectify their actions or performance.

Verbal warnings are often used as a proactive approach to resolving problems before they escalate further and may serve as a foundation for future documentation or disciplinary measures if necessary.

Why issue a formal verbal warning?

A formal verbal warning becomes necessary when an employee's conduct or performance issues persist despite previous informal discussions.

In such cases, a clear indication needs to be provided that the behaviour or performance is unacceptable and that further disciplinary action may be taken if the issues are not rectified.

A formal verbal warning addresses ongoing concerns and promotes behavioural change. They:

Establish a more structured and documented approach to convey the severity of the situation.

Communicate expectations, specific areas of concern, and potential consequences of non-compliance.

Carry greater weight and emphasize the seriousness of the matter at hand.

Require a comprehensive and structured approach to ensure the employee fully understands the gravity of their actions or performance.

Useful read: Employee Code of Conduct: Everything you should know

A formal verbal warning is an opportunity for the employer to:

  • Provide a clear roadmap for improvement.

  • Establish specific expectations and steps for rectifying behaviour or enhancing performance.

  • Set a baseline for future evaluations and identify further areas of concern.

Furthermore, a formal verbal warning triggers a more formalized disciplinary procedure within the organization, including:

Possibility of holding a disciplinary hearing for the employee to present their case and respond to concerns.

Ensuring all parties involved have a fair and unbiased opportunity to address the issue.

Leading to a well-informed decision regarding necessary actions.

The purpose of a formal verbal warning is to:

  • Provide the employee with a final opportunity to rectify their conduct or performance.

  • Prevent the need for more severe disciplinary measures.

  • Bring about positive change and foster a culture of accountability, fairness, and continuous improvement.

Throughout the process of issuing a formal verbal warning, employers must:

  • Adhere to established disciplinary procedures to ensure a fair and consistent approach.

  • Document all relevant information and maintain clear communication.

  • Follow up on the progress made by the employee.

The difference between formal and informal verbal warnings

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When addressing employee issues, a formal and informal verbal warning serve the common goal of addressing concerns and promoting behavioural improvements.

However, there are distinct differences between these two types of verbal warnings:

Informal verbal warnings:

  • Typically used for minor infractions or as an initial intervention for performance concerns.

  • Less structured and less documented compared to a formal verbal warning.

  • Often used to provide timely employee feedback and address immediate issues.

  • Emphasize open communication and dialogue between the employer or supervisor and the employee.

  • Focus on offering guidance, coaching, and opportunities for improvement.

  • Generally, not formally recorded in the employee's official personnel file.

  • Aim to rectify behaviour or performance concerns early, preventing them from escalating.

Formal verbal warnings:

  • Employed when informal approaches have been ineffective in addressing persistent conduct or performance issues.

  • More structured and documented, creating a formal record of the warning and associated discussions.

  • Convey a greater sense of seriousness and signal the need for immediate improvement.

  • Communicate specific concerns and expectations to the employee.

  • This may involve following a prescribed disciplinary procedure within the organization.

  • Carry implications for future disciplinary actions if behaviour or performance does not improve.

  • Serve as a reference point for evaluating the employee's progress or determining further actions if needed.

The critical distinction between formal and informal verbal warnings lies in the level of structure, documentation, and severity.

An informal verbal warning is generally employed for minor or initial issues, focusing on open communication and offering guidance.

On the other hand, formal verbal warnings are more robust, involving structured processes and documentation to convey the seriousness of the situation and the need for immediate improvement.

The six-step verbal warning procedure

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Following a structured procedure when issuing a verbal warning is essential to ensure fairness, consistency, and effectiveness in addressing employee behaviour or performance issues.

This comprehensive six-step process ensures a thorough and well-documented approach:

Step 1: Establishing the facts

Gather all relevant information and evidence about the employee's behaviour or performance issues.

This may involve conducting interviews, reviewing records, or documenting specific incidents.

The goal is to clearly understand the situation before proceeding further.

Step 2: Informing the employee of the findings

Schedule a private and confidential meeting with the employee to discuss the concerns.

This meeting is an opportunity to communicate the specific incidents or areas of underperformance identified openly.

Clearly outline the details, providing specific examples, and allowing the employee to understand the exact nature of the issue.

Step 3: Notifying the employee

During this critical step, communicate to the employee that a verbal warning is being issued.

Explain the reasons behind the warning, emphasizing the impact of the behaviour or performance on the team, the organization, or other stakeholders.

Use this opportunity to outline the expectations for improvement, setting specific and measurable goals the employee should strive to achieve.

Step 4: Holding a disciplinary hearing

In certain cases, it may be necessary to conduct a formal disciplinary hearing as part of the verbal warning process.

This hearing allows the employee to respond to the concerns raised during the verbal warning. It allows them to present their perspective, provide additional context, and address any misunderstandings or potential mitigating factors.

The hearing should be conducted in a fair and unbiased manner, ensuring that all parties involved have a chance to express their views.

Step 5: Implementing an improvement plan

Collaboratively develop an improvement plan with the employee. This plan should outline clear expectations, goals, and support mechanisms to help employees address the identified behaviour or performance issues.

It may involve additional training, mentoring, or resources to assist in their improvement journey. Regularly monitor the employee's progress, provide constructive feedback, and offer guidance to ensure they are on track.

Step 6: Monitoring and follow-up

Monitoring the employee's progress is crucial after the verbal warning has been issued and the improvement plan implemented.

Regularly review their behaviour or performance, providing constructive feedback and guidance. Document any observed changes or improvements, noting milestones achieved or areas requiring further attention.

This ongoing monitoring and follow-up ensure accountability and demonstrate the organization's commitment to supporting the employee in their journey towards improvement.

What should a verbal warning letter include?

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A verbal warning letter is an essential part of the documentation process.

Although not legally required, it is a written record of the verbal warning and the expectations discussed during the meeting.

The letter should include:

  • The employee's name and designation
  • The date and time of the verbal warning
  • A summary of the concerns or incidents leading to the warning
  • Clear expectations for improvement
  • The consequences of further non-compliance
  • A statement acknowledging the employee's right to appeal the decision

What is the difference between a verbal and written warning?

As the name suggests, a verbal warning is issued orally and is not typically recorded in an employee's official personnel file. They are meant to address immediate concerns and facilitate an open dialogue.

In contrast, written warnings are more formal and are documented in writing. They serve as a more significant disciplinary action and may have long-term consequences if not heeded.

Best practice for issuing a verbal warning at work

When issuing a verbal warning, there are some best practices to consider:

  1. Privacy and Confidentiality: Conduct the meeting privately to ensure the employee's confidentiality and minimize potential embarrassment or distress.

  2. Clarity and Specificity: Clearly articulate the concerns, providing specific examples to avoid ambiguity or misinterpretation.

  3. Active Listening: Allow employees to express their perspectives and concerns, fostering open communication and understanding.

  4. Constructive Feedback: Offer constructive feedback to help the employee understand the impact of their behaviour or performance and identify areas for improvement.

  5. Documentation: While verbal warnings may not be officially recorded, it is essential to keep a record of the discussions held, including dates, times, and key points discussed.

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Verbal warnings play a vital role in managing employee conduct and performance issues in the workplace.

By following a structured procedure, maintaining clear communication, and adhering to best practices, employers, HR professionals, and small business owners can effectively address concerns while fostering a positive work environment.

Remember, consistent and fair implementation of verbal warnings contributes to a more productive and harmonious workplace.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • A verbal warning may not be formally documented, but keeping a record of the discussions and outcomes for future reference is good practice. This helps establish a history of the employee's conduct or performance concerns.

  • The duration of a verbal warning depends on the nature and severity of the issue. It is intended to be a temporary measure that prompts the employee to rectify the behaviour or performance concern promptly.

  • Verbal warnings, as informal actions, may not be documented in an employee's official personnel file. However, repeated or serious infractions may result in more severe disciplinary actions that will be recorded.

  • Yes, an employee can appeal a verbal warning if they believe it is unjust or mitigating circumstances exist. Employers should have an established procedure in place to address such appeals.

Topic: Procedures
Rinaily Bonifacio

Written by:

Rinaily Bonifacio

Rinaily is a renowned expert in the field of human resources with years of industry experience. With a passion for writing high-quality HR content, Rinaily brings a unique perspective to the challenges and opportunities of the modern workplace. As an experienced HR professional and content writer, She has contributed to leading publications in the field of HR.


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