Written warning at work: what it means and how to respond

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 21 November 2022

Published 30 November 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Warnings at work are one major way employers communicate their displeasure over an employee's work or attitude. It doesn't mean your employer is going to terminate your employment, rather it's a warning that requires you to amend a behaviour and visibly improve. This is why it's necessary to understand why you received a written warning and also take steps to resolve it. In this article, we explore the meaning of a written warning, whether you can get a written warning before a verbal warning and how to respond to a written warning at work.

What it means to get a written warning at work

Your team leader serving you a written warning at work is not an enjoyable process for either of you. But if your team lead gives you one, it's because your organisation or your supervisor has a reason to. Below are some of the reasons you may receive a written warning:

  • low performance at work

  • misunderstanding

  • poor relationship with other employees or poor teamwork

  • inability to work without supervision

  • poor time management like being late to work, failing to meet deadlines, etc

  • misconduct when it comes to customer relationship management

  • not contributing towards the company's vision and mission.

Getting a written warning on any of the above-listed reasons or others may also indicate that your employer wants you to take the chance to change. At the same time, it can result in eventual termination if you don't comply with the corrections. Most companies have a disciplinary procedure in place that you and your team leader can follow in this scenario.

Read more: How To Terminate an Employee: A Step-By-Step Guide

Can you get a written warning before a verbal warning?

There is no strict regulation or written policy about how organisations issue warnings to employees. Disciplinary policies may differ from company to company. But according to the government regarding disciplinary procedures, the employer has to put the disciplinary procedure down in writing and ensure it's accessible to all staff. It's also necessary that the warning includes the rules and the actions and behaviours that can attract disciplinary action and the consequences. Employers are more likely to give a verbal warning before a written warning if they want to deal with the issue immediately.

This may come as a frank conversation or mild warning, although even a mild warning is still a warning. If you fail to take the action required by a verbal warning, your organisation may escalate it to a written warning. Sometimes if your organisation terminates your employment, you may feel that your employer's action was unlawful and take legal action against them. Companies, therefore, send written warnings as their formal evidence and reason for the lawful termination of the employee's contract.

How to respond to a written warning at work

Getting a formal warning at work may come as a surprise, especially if there wasn't a prior verbal warning. There is no perfect way to react but below are 10 practical steps to respond to a written warning:

1. Remain calm

Being issued a formal warning can happen to any employee of an organisation. When you get one, do your best to limit your emotional reaction. Avoid crying or shouting as a way of registering your surprise, or any form of reaction that may escalate the situation. Another part of being calm is to resist the urge to discuss the warning with your employer or supervisor right away. You may not be thinking sensibly at that moment.

2. Understand the warning

You can only move to resolve a written warning after you understand it. Spend time evaluating what the formal warning is about. If you are having a difficult time doing this, you may consider meeting with the human resources department of your company or employees' advisor if available. Through these resources, you can get sufficient information and support on how best to handle the written warning.

Related: 5 fair reasons for dismissal (And how the process works)

3. Be clear on the goal

There is no universal rule on how employers are to issue warnings at work. But employers know what they want to achieve when they serve employees formal warnings. Written warnings can be a protective measure in case of a lawsuit after terminating an employee's appointment. It's also likely that they want you to take the matter seriously and make effective corrections following a verbal warning. It's important to be clear on the reasoning behind a written warning, so ask your manager if there's anything you don't understand. Clarity on the goal guides you through what to prepare for.

4. Speak up if you dispute the warning

Sometimes, the reason for your warning at work happens because of oversight, misrepresentation or misunderstanding so you can solve the warning amicably. Legally, it's essential that your employer's disciplinary policy allows you to appeal the decision contained in any written warning. So, if after understanding the warning, you feel it's undeserved, present your case before the appropriate department. Try to be pragmatic in handling this situation. Avoid being emotional while defending yourself and remain obedient to the rules of conduct in your organisation. Mind your choice of words and maintain a professional, calm manner.

5. Write a formal refutation

Another way to respond to a formal warning at work is to write an official reply to that effect. If you think you can best handle the situation on paper, this step may work best for you. Try to only address the issue in question clearly and concisely. Keep out unnecessary details, and old issues, and avoid bringing third parties into the letter. Be polite irrespective of how you feel about the matter.

6. Make amends if your team leader was right to give you the warning

Although a written warning may seem unfair and subjective, if the written warning has a basis and you understand it, the next step is to correct it. For example, if you work in the sales department and your supervisor serves you a written warning because of your poor attitude to customers. To correct this, you may have to relearn customer service management. This includes how you communicate with customers and improving your crisis management skills.

In this situation, you could also recruit the support of your colleagues who seem to be doing well at customer service delivery. The goal is to find a way to improve on the areas that caused the warning.

Read more: Management Skills: Definitions and Examples

7. Get an accountability partner

A great way of correcting an old habit is to keep yourself accountable to someone. If, for instance, you're trying to improve your punctuality to work, you can begin reducing time spent on irrelevant activities, sleeping on time to rise early and setting your alarm. In addition to this, you can also work with an accountability partner. In this example, the punctuality partner would be anybody who is consistently early to work. Being accountable to such a person can provide you with the encouragement you might need to make the necessary changes.

8. Seek periodic evaluation

If the goal of your written warning is to help you make amends, it's then important to seek a periodic evaluation with your supervisor. Let's assume that the formal warning is about your poor teamwork skill. As soon as you start making corrections, ask your team lead and other team members for their candid evaluation over a selected period. Improving your working attitude always takes time, so make sure to have regular evaluations.

Related: Teamwork Skills: Definition, Types and Tips for Improvement

9. Be on the lookout for another job

A formal warning at work doesn't automatically mean your employer is ready to terminate your appointment. But although this may not be the initial goal, a lot can change while you're focused on making amends. To be safe, you may try to check for another job. Leverage your existing networks and move to make new contacts for job opportunities and referrals. Update your CV with your most recent skills and experiences and start applying for the available job opportunities.

10. Seek court resolution

The decision contained in a written warning could be immediate dismissal, unfair deadline even suspension without pay during the period and other severe punishment. If you find the decision unfair but your employer fails to allow you to appeal, you may consider seeking a court resolution. But ensure this is after you have consulted with a lawyer, as the process can be long and arduous.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.


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