Verbal, Written and Final Warnings: The How and the When

Written warnings, final written warnings, verbal warnings (or ‘written verbal warnings’, whatever that might be) – how and when do you issue them and what do you do once you have issued them?

The Labour Relations Act (LRA), Code of Good Practice: Dismissal (the Code) encourages ‘corrective or progressive discipline’ and states: ‘Efforts should be made to correct employees’ behaviour through a system of graduated disciplinary measures such as counselling and warnings’ (section 3). But how do we make it work?


The Code merely requires that the accusation be put to the employee in a form and language that he or she will understand and that the employee be allowed a reasonable time and an opportunity to respond to the allegations, with assistance if required. Then the employer should make a decision and let the employee know. However, if one’s internal disciplinary codes require a more formal process, that process must be followed.

Verbal warnings

Verbal warnings are usually associated with informal counselling, often linked to performance or minor transgressions such as first-time late coming. However, nothing is verbal; everything must be written down; otherwise, what evidence is there for the next time?

Informal counselling may involve reminding the employee of a rule that has been broken or a standard that has been missed and discussing what he or she is going to do to change the situation. While there may be no need for a formal written warning, the employee must be told of the consequences of repeated behaviour. Once the conversation is done, the issue, the action to be taken and the warning about consequences should be written down and sent to the employee, whether in an email or a memo, and a copy put in his or her file. This is what is usually, rather oddly, called a verbal waring.

Written warnings

More serious (or repeated) infringements require more serious consequences, which may be written warnings or final written warnings or what the LRA calls ‘any action short of dismissal.’ Some disciplinary codes require more formal processes before the issuing of written or final written warnings, but the Code does not require it. There is no reason not to issue a written warning (or even a final written warning), if appropriate, during informal counselling as long as the employee has been informed of the accusation and has had the opportunity to respond as required by the Code.

Choosing counselling over a formal disciplinary enquiry may be easier to manage and take less time, but the thought and effort put into the counselling should be no less than that for a formal enquiry (see ‘Seven questions for a Disciplinary Hearing’). There can be no short cuts in a manager’s preparation.

Final written warnings, of course, should be just that. Unless there is excellent reason, the next step after a final warning should be dismissal.

Make it happen

None of the above is difficult to understand or to put in place. What is difficult is to make them happen within our busy schedules. But if we don’t, if we don’t act the first time, if we don’t follow up when it happens again, we make nonsense of our standards of behaviour and performance.

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Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.

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