A written formal warning is basically a letter which will sit on an employee’s file for future reference that outlines performance concerns and an action plan of what the employee needs to do.
There’s no legal requirement to provide an official warning letter (or a certain number of written formal warnings) before terminating someone. But when considering unfair dismissal claims, Fair Work does consider if the employee was aware of the issue and if they were given an opportunity to improve or change their behaviour.
The Formal Warning Letter Process
1. Issue a verbal warning
Before heading into a formal written warning, you should try and resolve the issue informally or with verbal warnings. We’ve outlined the steps for amore informal process in an earlier blog. But sometimes you have to take the next step and move on to something more serious like an official warning letter.
2. Determine your tone
Have a think about the tone and reasons for your letter. By understanding your own intentions, you’ll be able to get your point across clearer. Do you want to improve your employee’s behavior? Or are you documenting reasons for their eventual termination?
Your tone can also influence how the letter will be received. If you let anger or personal bias come through, your employee may react by withdrawing rather than improving.
3. Structure your letter
There are certain guidelines you need to follow when structuring a formal warning letter. There are a variety of templates you can find online but there are three key components you need to include.
Firstly, you need to get straight to the point of the letter and clearly outline the issue. The more specific you are the better. You then need to identify how this contrasts to expected behaviour and the necessary action to correct the issue. Finally, you need to state the consequences or disciplinary action the employee will face if they fail to improve their behaviour.
4. Schedule a meeting
When delivering an official warning letter, it’s best to do so during a meeting with the employee. You should let the employee know what the meeting is about so they can prepare and offer them the opportunity to have a support person present. The meeting should follow the same format as the formal written warning letter.
The first thing to include is details of the written warning. Outline the exact issue or details of performance, being as specific as you can. If you’ve had previous meetings about the issue, then outline when and where those meetings occurred as well as the details of the meeting you had over the formal warning letter.
5. State Expectations
You then need to outline what you as the employer are expecting the employee to do next. If you already have set goals or targets, mention those in the letter but make sure that they aren’t discriminatory and can be independently measured.
6. Check understanding
After you’ve handed over the formal written warning to the employee, you should check that they have read it and understood the warning. Provide them an opportunity to ask questions or to arrange a follow-up meeting the next day. Remember, they might be emotional so try and keep to the facts as much as you possibly can.
7. Ask the employee to sign the letter
While this isn’t compulsory, it confirms that the employee has received and understood the formal warning letter. If they refuse to sign, simply follow the next step!
8. Keep everything on record
Make sure you keep a copy of the letter for your records and at the end of the meeting, make some notes of what happened while it’s fresh in your mind. While these might not be required, it’s always good to have something to refer back to in case things escalate.
9. Follow up
If you’re expecting the employee to come back to you with a plan for improvement, make sure you specify the date that you want to see this by. Don’t forget to also include any assistance that you’ll provide the employee to help them improve their performance or behaviour.
10. Be consistent
It’s important to remember to be consistent overtime. If you’re going to issue a formal warning letter over certain behaviour, this standard must apply to all employees.
How to write an official warning letter
Employment Hero offers templates for Formal Written Warning letters that are constantly reviewed by our Employment Specialists to help you get started. These templates also facilitate a paperless performance management experience where you can send the letter immediately after your meeting.
This makes sure your team member understands the areas for improvement with timelines and measures for delivery. Moreover, it’s added to their employee file for both your reference and their reference.
HR Compliance is a must for any business. And having the correct procedures in place for employee management is just the tip of the iceberg.
If you’re unsure about what to include in your formal written warning or any legal obligations, it’s always best to discuss it with an expert. Or, simply download our Essential Guide to HR Compliance above ☝️ for free advice from the dedicated team at Employment Hero.
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Alex Hattingh is the Chief People Officer at Employment Hero and she has over 15 years experience in people management. Alex derives energy and passion from helping both companies and their employees succeed. Alex’s roles have covered large Fortune 500 companies through to start-ups.