How Do You Issue A Written Warning To An Underperforming Employee?

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When is a written warning for unsatisfactory job performance truly necessary? HR leaders need to know so they can adhere to legal and regulatory requirements in the UK. They need to do it by the book, so it needs to be a well-founded process.

Of course, in an ideal world, every workforce would be made up of committed, dedicated, and motivated employees. Unfortunately, in reality, sometimes people just end up not being the right fit. If they can’t do their job or deliver the required results, it may be necessary to go through an employee disciplinary process.

This potentially means issuing a written warning. To learn more, let’s walk you through the process…

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What Is a Written Warning?

A written warning is used, by an employer and in the form of a document, to warn an employee of their actions in the workplace, general conduct, and the potential consequences if the employee does not remedy their behavior (with regards to employment).

For a more standard definition, and according to Acas, a written warning is “a formal warning that the employer can give the employee at the end of the disciplinary procedure.” (Note: At the end, not the beginning, of the procedure!) It should include information about the misconduct or performance issue, what changes need to be made by the employee (with a timescale), what will happen if the changes aren’t made or if there is further misconduct or the employee’s performance does not improve.

A written warning should also include information about how long the warning will stay in place. If relevant (as in the case of performance-related issues), it also should include details about any support or training the employer will provide.

Often referred to as an improvement note, a written warning should only be issued after attempts to handle the issue informally. For example, by having a quiet word with the employee about why their behavior is unacceptable and what they can do to change it.

In most cases, an improvement note or written warning is only issued after a disciplinary meeting has taken place.

Which Step Is A Written Warning In The Disciplinary Process?

A written warning is step five in the process. It is just one of the stages in the disciplinary procedure which should be written in your company’s disciplinary policy or guidelines. The disciplinary procedure recommended by Acas is a six-step process that goes as follows:

  1. Understand the options
  2. Follow a fair procedure
  3. Carry out an investigation
  4. Undertake a disciplinary hearing
  5. Decide on the outcome
  6. Follow up after the disciplinary procedure

Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures: What You Need to Know

Taking disciplinary action against an employee is a serious business that is documented in the Acas Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures. Even gov.uk refers companies in the UK to this Code of Practice, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with its contents when considering writing a warning letter to an employee for misconduct or poor performance. For a more accessible and practical piece of guidance, it is also helpful to take a look at the Acas guide to Discipline and Grievances at work which includes the employee discipline procedure (the 6-step processes listed above), amongst other useful advice.

What Is the Difference Between a First Written Warning and a Final Written Warning?

As you might expect, a first written warning is the first formal, written step towards dismissal. It should only be issued once you have confirmed that misconduct or poor performance is taking/has taken place. If the employee repeats or commits another misconduct or doesn’t improve performance within a set time frame the employer can then give a final written warning which must explicitly warn the employee that if they might be dismissed if they don’t meet the requirements of the final written warning.

In cases of serious misconduct or poor performance, for example, where the employee’s actions have, or could, cause serious harm to the business, you don’t always need to issue an employee warning notice or first written warning. In this case, dismissing the employee or taking other disciplinary or legal action against them may be appropriate. If their action is also against the law they should also be reported to the police. You can report fraud and cyber crime to the National Business Crime Centre as well as suspicious online behavior, online hate or bullying crime.

Why Is it Important to Keep a Record of Any Written Warnings and Other Poor Performance-Related Information?

Every company should have its disciplinary process documented. However, it doesn’t help if people don’t know where it is or if people think, “We have that document… somewhere…”. Both managers and employees must know about this process, any relevant disciplinary procedures or documentation, and where to find this information. In addition, even though most of us would rather forget it ever happened, it is also necessary and important to document each stage of a disciplinary procedure!

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Six Tips For Writing A Written Warning

Employee discipline is hardly an enjoyable process for those involved. Therefore, it is important to know how and when to issue a warning letter to an employee for misconduct or poor performance.

Here are six helpful tips for producing a written warning:

  • There is no specific process you must go through to dismiss an employee, according to UK law, as long as you do it fairly. However, it is wise to follow a process like the one that Acas has documented.
  • If you are following the Acas process, only send a written warning letter to an employee once the other four steps have been taken (specifically: Understand the options; follow a fair procedure; carry out an investigation and undertake a disciplinary hearing).
  • When you do issue a written warning, include all the relevant information in the letter.
  • For examples of a written warning letter take a look at the Acas disciplinary outcome letter templates. These include – notice of disciplinary warning (first written warning) and notice of disciplinary outcome letters (dismissal or no action).
  • Be aware that employees can be dismissed for gross misconduct (including things like theft, physical violence, gross negligence, or serious insubordination). If this can be proven then a different set of procedures apply.
  • You can find an example of written warning template from ABDO here (the Association of British Dispensing Opticians).

While an employer has the right to dismiss an employee if they are:

  • Incapable of doing their job to the required standard
  • They are capable, but unwilling to do their job properly
  • If they have committed some form of misconduct

Overall, dismissals are a painful and time-consuming process. If in doubt, have a conversation with an errant employee first. Sometimes employers and employees can agree that it is time to part ways without the arduous process of going through a disciplinary process. This means that it won’t be necessary to write a written warning letter at all.

Need help handling HR processes and documents? It might be worth considering investing in HR document and process management software. This way, everyone can find the documents they need, when they need them, effortlessly, while storing them safely for future reference.


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