A written warning is a stage in a company’s formal disciplinary policy and procedure. There may only be one written warning stage, but there could be multiple stages of written warning.
It is essential that a company clearly documents their disciplinary policy and communicates it to managers and employees. It may be a stand-alone policy, a policy contained within the company handbook or part of the contract of employment. Once a company has a policy and procedure, it is essential that it follows it, otherwise it will automatically be in breach of their own policy or procedures.
The policy will usually identify the whole disciplinary procedure including:
- How much notice will be given ahead of a disciplinary hearing / meeting
- Who may attend the meeting
- What the possible outcomes of the disciplinary procedure are
- What the appeal options and timescales are
If a written warning is issued, it is usually in the form of a letter. It will usually contain the following information:
- An outline of the discussion in the disciplinary hearing
- What type of written warning it is (in line with the company policy)
- Which specific allegations it has been issued for
- What improvements or changes are required, if relevant
- How long it will remain on the employee’s file
- How the employee can appeal against the warning
An outline of the discussion
Full notes of the meeting are often issued with the written warning letter. In some cases, the employee will be asked to read through the notes in the meeting and sign to say they are an accurate reflection of the meeting. The employee does not need to agree with the contents, just that the notes accurately reflect the discussion.
Type of written warning
Some companies will have a policy which issues one written warning. Depending on the nature of the business and the work being done, there may be a number of levels of written warnings. A example is a company which uses three stages. A first written warning may be issued for a minor offence. A second written warning may be issued for a more serious offence or in the event of a repeat offence for which a first written warning is still active on the employee’s record. A final written warning may be issued for a much more serious offence or where an employee already has a second written warning on their file for the same offence.
The exact framework of offences and corresponding warnings issued should be documented in the policy so that there is consistency, transparency and expectations are properly managed.
In some cases a disciplinary hearing may cover a number of issues and concerns. It is possible that not all of these allegations will be found to have merit. It may be that the written warning is only issued for one, or a few, of the allegations and not all of them. The written warning must clearly set out the outcome of the meeting and what the warning is being issued for.
Future performance / behaviour
In some cases a performance improvement plan may be part of the written warning. This will clearly set out what needs to improve, how it will be monitored and the timeframes involved.
In other instances, the warning may have been issued for excessive lateness or dangerous behaviour or failure to follow an operational process. Again, the expected behaviour should be stated in the letter so that there is no doubt or room for misunderstanding of expectations in the future.
How long the warning stays on an employee’s record will be determined by the company policy. They are rarely indefinite as this would be unfair. Once the penalty has expired, the letter should be removed from record.
An example framework may be that a first written warning remains on file for 3 months, a second written warning for 6 months and a final written warning for 12 months. However, it may be that the company decides to work on a ‘12 month’s for all warnings’ or a 12,18 & 24 month pattern.
Legally an employee has the right to appeal against any written warning and the letter will usually state how long they have in which to appeal and who they need to write to in order to do so.
The policy will usually require the employee to state the grounds for their appeal.