in All markets by Robert Blain

Dos and don’ts for HR when issuing a formal warning

dos and donts for hr when issuing a fomal warning


It’s one of the more onerous jobs of an HR professional. Nobody likes giving a formal warning letter. But in every people manager’s career – when handling an underperforming employee – there will most likely be times that it’s necessary to issue one.

One unscrupulous employer known to Human Resources has, on at least one occasion, used a formal warning letter to shame an employee into quitting. That is not what a formal warning is for.

Why issue a formal warning?

By definition, a formal warning is a letter that is part of a member of staff’s file for future reference. It clearly outlines concerns surrounding performance or misconduct and any necessary action plan of what the employee needs to do to improve.

It’s important to note that it is, but one step with which to deal with employee performance issues, and according to Alex Hattingh, chief people officer at cloud-based HR management system, Employment Hero, it shouldn’t be the first.

“The number one rule regarding formal written warnings is that they should never be a surprise to an employee,” she says.

Performance concerns should be raised during private one-on-one meetings and written warnings should only take place after all other avenues have been exhausted.

Escalating an informal warning to the next level

Hattingh advises that prior to issuing a formal written warning, try to resolve the issue with an informal verbal warning to make the employee aware they aren’t meeting the expectations of their role. While this isn’t written, you do need to clearly articulate the particular areas of underperformance.

If verbal warnings don’t result in noticeable improvements in performance – or at the very least, endeavour – you may want to proceed to the formal written warning.

Components of a formal written warning

Reference your informal verbal conversation(s) and include key dates.

  • Specify details of the areas where your employee is underperforming and always provide examples.
  • Reference the number of the warning letter (first, second, third).
  • Create an action plan and communicate dates that you plan to check-in with your employee.
  • Make it clear that another written warning could be issued or employment could be terminated if expectations are not met.
  • Reassure your employee that the warning is confidential.

Hattingh advises: “You should always discuss the specifics of the written warning letter with your employee prior to physically delivering it as it allows them to ask questions and clarify any issues or concerns before they receive and review it in writing.”

Formal written warnings and the law

To the strict letter of the law, there is no legal requirement to provide a formal written warning before termination, although an employee can claim they have been unfairly dismissed if they haven’t been given fair warning and a reasonable amount of time to improve their performance.

The appropriate number of warnings is not set in stone. It is based on what is fair and reasonable, taking into account nature and seriousness of the underperformance and what level of progress the employee is making to come up to the organisation’s standards.


Photo / 123RF

This article was first published in Human Resources and is reproduced with permission. 
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