Writing a warning

10 guidelines for writing an employee warning

A written warning can be useful in getting an employee to realize the severity of his or her behavior. It also can provide legal protection from a wrongful termination lawsuit.

Although verbal warnings are one of the first lines of defense in curtailing bad behavior, employers should keep the written warning option in their back pocket in the event a sterner approach is required.

Sometimes employee behavior is so inappropriate that you should issue a formal written warning explaining expectations and outlining consequences.

Here are the 10 guidelines for drafting a written warning.

Document verbal warnings first

Track all verbal warnings and disciplinary measures in writing at the time they are given. You can refer to previous infractions when you actually prepare your written warning. Although documenting verbal communication can be a chore, the details could prove valuable in the event of a wrongful termination lawsuit.

Determine tone

Determine your reasons for writing the warning. Are you interested in improving the employee's behavior or are you paving the groundwork for termination? You should understand your own intentions for writing the letter.

Consult with manager

Discuss the situation with others at the management level for useful insights. Determine who will actually write the letter and who will deliver it. Although any upper-level manager or human resource specialist can ghostwrite the written warning, the actual delivery of the document should come from the employee's direct supervisor.


Your written warning could end up being a legal document, so use formal guidelines. At the top, include the subject, date, time, your name and job title, the employee's name and job title and the name of any person who will receive a copy of the memo.

State company policy

If you have an employee handbook, copy the policy or policies the employee broke and include it in your warning letter. If you don't, then briefly summarize your company's policy related to the incident.

Describe what happened

Describe the incident in as much detail as available, including the date, time, what took place and the names of the people involved. Avoid letting personal subjectivity seep into your recounting of the facts.

State expectations

If you truly intend to help the employee curtail his or her behavior, take the time to outline exactly what you expect to change and within what timeframe.

Outline consequences

Describe the actions that will result from further incorrect behavior. Here again, be as specific as possible. Leave no room for misinterpretation should you terminate the employee later.

Obtain signatures

You need the following signatures: the person giving the warning, the employee receiving the warning, and any witnesses to the meeting with the employee. If the employee refuses to sign, ask for a letter saying he or she refuses to sign.

Deliver your warning in person

A written warning must be handled discreetly with an in-person conversation. It cannot be left on a desk or sent by email.

Executive Summary

A written warning can be useful in getting an employee to realize the severity of his or her behavior. It also can provide legal protection from a wrongful termination lawsuit, should the situation escalate.

When drafting a warning memo, document the incident in detail and obtain the proper signatures. Be careful of the tone you use and understand your true reasons for drafting the memo. If your goal is to help an employee get back on track, a firmly worded written warning is an excellent tool.

For more information about this topic, contact Cindy McSwain using her information below.

Cindy McSwain

Senior Vice President
Outsourcing Services

Cindy McSwain leads AGH’s outsourcing services group. Her team provides payroll, accounting, funds disbursement, controller, and other financial outsourcing services to numerous clients throughout the U.S. Prior to joining the outsourcing group, Cindy served AGH’s audit clients for 10 years, working with a wide range of middle-market, closely held and family-owned organizations.

Her current clients cross many industry sectors, including manufacturing and distribution, restaurants, retailers, medical and not-for-profit. She has participated in numerous SEC filings and public registrations and has experience in mergers and acquisitions. Cindy is a certified public accountant and a member of both the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Kansas Society of Certified Public Accountants.

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