How to Issue a Verbal Warning for Poor Performance

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Supervisors issue a verbal warning when an employee's poor performance warrants a disciplinary action more severe than supervisory counseling and coaching. Its purpose is to get the employee's attention when normal managerial discussions, meetings, and suggestions have failed to have a beneficial effect.

Documenting a Verbal Warning

The verbal warning is documented by the supervisor in their informal notes about the efforts provided to help the employee improve.

If the verbal warning is not documented, with the employee's signature indicating they have received it, it may as well not exist.

The verbal warning would be difficult to prove during any potential progressive discipline warnings or future litigation. But it also has another advantage: Employees also tend to take any documented criticism of their performance to heart.

This verbal warning documentation is included with any other written documentation that the supervisor maintains—such as employee goals, progress, backup information for the employee's performance development plan (PDP) or performance appraisal, and so forth.

These notes are not part of an employee's personnel file; they are private supervisory documentation of an employee's performance. If the employee's performance eventually warrants termination, however, the verbal warning paperwork may end up in the employee's personnel file as a backup to prove formal progressive disciplinary action.

Performance That Warrants a Verbal Warning

Several types of behavior might make a manager want to use a verbal warning. Common ones involve time spent on the job or lack thereof: An employee is consistently late for work, leaves work early, or doesn't work the required number of hours.

Other performance issues:

  • The employee is failing to complete assignments on time because of procrastination and poor planning.
  • The employee is interacting negatively with co-workers or customers.
  • For no reason, the employee fails to gather important backup information and research necessary to adequately study and present solutions to a problem or process that needs improvement.
  • The employee talks flippantly and nastily to the boss.

Steps After the Verbal Warning

The verbal warning is generally followed, in disciplinary action procedures, by a written verbal warning that begins the documentation of disciplinary action in the employee's personnel file. The written verbal warning provides the beginning of the documentation necessary for an organization to fire an employee.

Then, if an employee's performance fails to improve during a series of disciplinary action steps, the employer has legally documented the steps taken to help an employee improve and retain employment throughout the process. The employer has also demonstrated they did take necessary action to help an employee improve and that the subsequent disciplinary action was not arbitrary.

While the steps in disciplinary action, including a verbal warning, differ from company to company—and even within a company, depending on the nature of the non-performance—a verbal warning is a negative event. The employee's performance is at a level the employer determines requires disciplinary action.

In keeping with the disciplinary action policy outlined in the employee handbook, a verbal warning may be the first, the last, or the only step required before employment termination, depending on the severity of the non-performance or the precipitating event. For this reason, employee handbooks should remain vague in terms of whether a formal progressive disciplinary action is always followed.

If an employer has the option to terminate the employee from the job much earlier, that's usually an advantage. You don't want an employee hanging around if they are having an impact on the work and morale of the other employees, or if they are actively interfering with progress in the workplace.