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5 Keys to an Effective Verbal Warning Process in the Workplace

written by: Sylvia Cochran•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 8/12/2011

Progressive disciplinary procedures should be part and parcel of every company-issued handbook. The employee verbal warning is frequently the first step in this process. Unfortunately, plenty of supervisors or managers are unskilled and unprepared to approach the worker. Would you know what to do?

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    The Big Misconception: It’s Not Just a Conversation

    Among the pitfalls of issuing verbal warnings is the failure to put them in writing. It may sound like a misnomer to refer to a disciplinary conversation as a verbal reprimand, only to then put the subject matter on paper, but it is in this manner that the human resources department effectively differentiates coaching from infraction correction.

    For example, a call center employee who fails to verify an account holder’s name during an inbound call may receive a coaching from the quality control worker who monitored the call. If the same call center employee persists in making this mistake, coaching escalates to disciplinary action. To ensure that the employee understands that a disciplinary process, which can ultimately lead to job termination, has indeed begun, it is imperative to separate the customary coaching from the verbal warning -- in writing.

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    What to Include

    Photo Credit: “Folders The human resources manager usually creates a form for the oral reprimand to be in keeping with the workplace’s particular needs. Include on this form:

    • The employee’s name and position
    • The date of the verbal warning
    • The behavior or mistake that prompted this first disciplinary step
    • Prior coaching sessions that have addressed the behavior or employee error; if this infraction has not been previously discussed in training sessions, make certain that there is a warning precedent set in the handbook
    • Summary of the conversation and highlights of the expected change in behavior the worker must undertake
    • A follow-up date to take stock of the employee’s progress; this meeting will take the form of a coaching session
    • A brief outline what the next step in the disciplinary process will be (should the employee fail to make the desired change in the allotted time)
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    The 5 Nuts and Bolts of a Reprimand

    Sounds simple, does it not? Do not be deceived! Delivering a verbal warning is one of the most difficult tasks to perform, in part because it requires a lot “thinking on your feet" and flexibility to deal with the conversation wherever it may lead. In addition, the lack of formality that usually accompanies a written warning also leads to some crucial mistakes, which a manager or supervisor may live to regret. Avoid problems by getting the process right -- the first time:

    1. Role-play. Even if you play through the conversation alone in your office, consider the possible responses the worker may give. Common examples include blame-shifting, indignation and anger. If you are a natural conflict-avoider, it is a good idea to prepare responses to expressions of anger. In the same vein, if you are naturally confrontational, find phrases to temper your delivery of the reprimand.
    2. Do it in pairs. Delivering a verbal reprimand alone is rarely a good idea, especially if an employee has a history of blame-shifting or well-documented disagreements with management. It is always advisable to have an HR representative of the employee’s gender present.
    3. Pinpoint one issue. This meeting is not the time to give the worker a laundry list of items that need improvement. While the employee may overall not be a great performer, the warning should only cover one particular item or area of improvement. For example, if you caught the worker sleeping, do not also bring up that there are several attendance policy problems on record and that last month’s sales figures were sub-par. Pick the most serious issue and focus on it.
    4. Use basic psychology. Take a page from the playbook of the University of Kentucky. The experts discussed how physicians might deliver bad news to a patient, and the mannerisms and preparation are very similar to those expected of a supervisor or manager who must reveal to a worker that there is a need for improvement -- or else. In simplest terms: Know the problem, offer avenues of change and reaffirm the management’s commitment to working side by side with the employee to ensure success. Highlight the value of the employee to the company. Point out areas of excellence or at least areas of growth and improvement.
    5. Put it in writing. Before ending the meeting, fill out the written form that memorializes the discussion. Have the employee sign it and do not forget to also get the human resources department representative’s signature. One copy should go into the worker’s personnel file, while another copy should be given to the employee. By the way, if you are supervising a union employee, be mindful that a collective bargaining agreement may govern the length of time that a verbal reprimand’s documentation may stay in the file. Case in point is the AFSCME Local 328, which highlights that a worker has the right to request reprimand removal if the disciplinary action took place longer than 24 months ago.
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    Please note that it is never easy to have this type of discussion with an employee. Verbal warning procedures that pave a way for future disciplinary actions can lead to heated responses. Only superb planning and a clearly defined goal for the meeting make it possible to get something of value from this discussion.

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