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Official warning procedures for employees

What happens when employees are starting to underperform? Here are a few ways to keep your business compliant and teams on track.
Published 5 Oct 2020
4 min read
Official warning procedures for employees

Recently we talked about conducting productive performance reviews. The best businesses are always improving their operations to stay competitive in their industry. To be able to do this, employees and managers need to be performing to a high standard. High performance in business can lead to increased productivity from more engaged and committed employees and also helps with retaining good employees.

But, what happens when employees are starting to underperform? Poor performing employees can have a negative effect on a business, for example:

  • Unhappy customers or clients
  • Decreased productivity
  • High turnover
  • Unmotivated and underperforming employees.

Looking at the above, it’s easy to see why a business may need to address poor performance. What is the official process that managers, leadership or employers should be following as part of an official warning procedure for employees? Let’s dive in…

Underperformance and Misconduct

Before we look into official warning procedures for employees, we need to look at why we would need one in the first place. An official warning procedure would be actioned when an employee is either underperforming or demonstrating signs of serious misconduct. Underperformance, or poor performance, is when an employee isn’t doing their job to an acceptable standard, or is behaving in an unacceptable way at work.

This can include anything from:

  • Not carrying out their work to the required standard or not doing their job at all
  • Not following workplace policies, rules or procedures
  • Unacceptable behaviour at work, eg. harassment or bullying
  • Disruptive or negative behaviour at work, eg. toxic behaviour

All of these types of employee behaviour could warrant an official warning procedure to take place. Or even as serious workplace misconduct. There’s a big difference between the two though! There is a difference between underperformance and serious misconduct.

Serious misconduct is when an employee:

  • Causes serious and imminent risk to the health and safety of another person or to the reputation or profits of their employer’s business or
  • Deliberately behaves in a way that’s inconsistent with continuing their employment.

Examples of serious misconduct can include anything from theft, fraud, assault or drugs and alcohol in the workplace. To show you more examples of serious misconduct – we took a look at some of the big blockbusters we all know and love that show some prime examples of misconduct in the workplace.

In order to prevent underperformance from happening in the first place, you want to make sure you’re running regular performance reviews to make sure communication is always open between you and your employees. For more information on how to run the most effective performance reviews, check out our previous article right here.

Official Warning Procedures for Employees

Step 1: An Informal Verbal Warning

The first step in any official warning procedure is to try and resolve the issue verbally with the employee as part of an informal warning to advise them that they aren’t meeting the expectations of their role. While this isn’t written, you do need to detail the specific areas of underperformance.

Our Chief People Officer, Alex Hattingh said in an article for the Seek Employer Blog “The number one rule regarding formal written warnings is that they should never be a surprise to an employee.” Performance issues should be flagged during regular one-on-one meetings and written warnings should happen after other avenues have been pursued.

Top Tip: Keep a note or email your employee following any verbal discussions you have about their performance. Doing this will make sure everything was clear. It also ensures that you have a written record of the topics that were discussed, as well as an audit trail.

After you have explained your concerns to an employee and provided them with strategies on how to improve performance, regular follow up meetings should be held. These can be used as an opportunity to talk about progress. See if there’s any further help or support the employee needs. Where performance has improved, you should make sure to recognise this. If verbal warnings don’t garner any changes, you may want to move on to Step 2.

Step 2: Formal Written Warning

As Alex said, a written warning should come as no surprise to an employee. They should be written in the form of a letter that’s personally addressed to the employee. Make sure you reference any verbal conversation and warnings that have previously been issued, along with the dates that these informal warnings were issued. In a formal written warning you also want to:

  • Specify details of the areas where your employees was, and still is, underperforming (providing examples if/when possible)
  • Create an action plan and communicate dates to check-in with your employee
  • Make sure it’s 100% clear that another warning letter could be issued or any other consequences (e.g. termination) if the employee does not meet your expectations
  • Reassure your employee that the warning is completely confidential

Once the warning letter has been sent, we advise setting up another face to face meeting with your employee to discuss the letter in person. If you need any help writing a formal warning letter, we’ve got a step-by-step guide for you to check out!

Step 3: Consequences

If the employee hasn’t changed their behaviour and continues underperforming and after multiple informal and formal warnings, the employer has the right to act out consequences as long as they were clearly outlined to the employee. If they have clearly explained the possible consequences of the employee not improving (including termination), then the employer has the right to action this.

Termination should only be considered as a final resort. You can see on the Fair Work website that If an employee is terminated, the employer needs to make sure of the following for the employee in question:

The employer may also think about getting independent advice from an employer association or lawyer if necessary. Hopefully, you won’t need to get step two or step three. In our experience, a verbal warning is usually enough to stop bad behaviour in its tracks.

For more information on employee termination, check out our quick and helpful guide to Correct Employee Termination Procedure.

Want more? If you want to make sure you’re doing right by your business, then download our essential guide to HR Compliance below.

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