Verbal Warnings – Do they have a place today?
As the disciplinary process evolves, it is helpful to reflect on your own organisation’s process and make sure it is up to date, current, fair and reasonable.
A key part of a traditional disciplinary process is the verbal warning – a step Managers can take when they believe an employee’s actions are serious enough to warrant more than an outline of expectations or a coaching session, yet not serious enough to warrant a Written Warning. Frequently these warnings are given by Managers without following a full process, and Companies often then mistakenly rely on them as the first step in a progressive warning process for misconduct.
A general rule of thumb for misconduct is that the progressive disciplinary processes should allow for three formal warnings for the employee prior to dismissal being considered. It’s important to consider whether a verbal warning forms part of the progressive disciplinary process for your organisation, and if so, specify this in your Code of Conduct.
For a verbal warning to be part of a progressive disciplinary process:
- It must be confirmed in writing, outlining the breach of policy and procedure and future expectations, and ideally have the employee’s signature
- You must still conduct an investigation, allowing the employee to respond after having the opportunity to prepare, have a support person present, and have access to all the information you have gathered about the misconduct
To be utilised and considered as part of a progressive process, the process you follow before issuing a verbal warning must be the same as if a written warning is given.
If you do not follow this process, then a verbal warning may be considered as part of the investigation into further misconduct but cannot be relied upon as one of the formal steps. It is instead background information confirming that the employee was aware of the Company rules and the impact of their actions.
If you do not follow this process, details of the verbal warning should not be stored on the employee’s personal file. Instead it would be considered the same as a coaching session, a letter of expectation or a Manager’s diary note.
For many Companies this requirement for a full process has meant that verbal warnings have become a thing of the past.
A more current approach is to streamline the process, doing away with verbal warnings altogether:
- First instance of the behaviour – Informal discussions reflecting concerns. The Manager would be advised to keep “diary notes”
- Second instance of the behaviour- Issue a Letter of Expectation alongside conducting a Coaching session driven by a Performance Improvement Plan (if appropriate). This is an informal process which does not require a formal investigation. The Manager outlines the impact of the behaviour and uses a coaching approach to help the employee identify ways they can improve. This is documented by the Manager and kept as part of the Performance Improvement Plan
- Third instance of the behaviour – An investigation is initiated, which can then set off the formal disciplinary process, inviting the employee to respond. It also includes the other requirements of a full process. A possible outcome could be a first written warning.
- Continuation of the Disciplinary process
Having a process which is sound, streamlined and allows for the employee to have an opportunity to change their behaviour is critical to minimising the risk of any comebacks on the process.
This area can be a minefield, and is not easy to get right.
Positive People are experienced in developing performance management frameworks which are legally compliant, understandable and practical for both managers and employees. Contact us today and we can help you review yours.