The funny thing about Verbal Warnings

5 min read

Implementing verbal warning or reprimand in the workplace seems to be causing misunderstandings. In particular, managers and supervisors get tripped up on what document should accompany the delivery of these reprimands. How do they document it for evidentiary purposes.

The question on this topic typically goes like this:

“Attorney Zag, when i issue a verbal reprimand or warning, what document should i give the employee?”

Honestly, the first time I heard it, I thought it was a joke. But then, it kept popping up sporadically with client questions and workshop participants.

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Why is there confusion in the first place?

The verbal warning is a peculiarity in the area of discipline. It kind of clashes with 2 very distinct schools of thought, that's why it's confusing. Let's try to analyze and make sense of it together.

First, what is a verbal warning or reprimand exactly?

A verbal warning or a verbal reprimand is one of the penalties available to a manager under the principle of management prerogative. If an employee does something wrong but it's light enough to be addressed by a simple conversation instead of a full-blown hearing, then the managers have the option to utilize verbal warnings or reprimands instead of a full blown memorandum .

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Is it allowed by law?

Definitely yes. Employers are free to create any penalty or consequence you deem fit within the workplace as long as they follow the 3 R's of Rule-making. If you need a refresher on what makes for good policy, read Rule 1 - Be reasonable, Rule 2 - Be Relevant and Rule 3 - Be Realistic.

Then why is it confusing?

When you talk to employees and it's over, it's over. It doesn't sit well with some employers because they are taught to document everything. How the heck can you document a conversation? That's why they resort to the awkward practice of issuing a document saying that an employee has been given a verbal warning, then asking them to sign the written equivalent of it. This nullifies the "verbal" nature of the penalty.

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Here's how it looks like in the real world:

  • Manager: "Hey employee, I'm giving you a verbal warning/reprimand.”
  • Employee: "Uhhh ok..."
  • Manager: "Please note that any repetition of this violation can escalate the penalty to heavier ones such as suspension or termination. You get me?"
  • Employee: "Yeah..."
  • Manager: "Please sign here..."
  • Employee: "Wait what? Sooooooo... is this really a verbal warning/reprimand or have i been issued a memo right now? I'm so confused right now."
  • Manager: (thinking to himself: You're confused? So am I....) "Ahem ahem, just sign the damn thing and get back to work!"

Don't get me wrong, I totally understand why managers do it. They are being diligent about their work and ensuring that there is evidence to back it up should it turn into a full-blown case. Let me make some recommendations that can hopefully address all concerns.

Ways of dealing with this

Here are 3 approaches that I think can work for you.

Stand your ground

First, I think you should make a stand. If you want to call this a verbal warning/reprimand, then stand your ground. Keep it 100% verbal. No documents or signatures required.

Call the employee to a meeting, discuss what you have to discuss about the violation, and then make it clear that they are being issued a verbal warning or a verbal reprimand. More importantly , clarify with them that if they repeat the same violation , they can be penalized with something heavier such as a suspension, demotion or possibly this may lead to termination.

Make it part of a bigger process

If you want to , you can pair this verbal warning up with a bigger disciplinary procedure such as a full-blown counseling or a coaching session with your employee. In that coaching or counselling session, you can draft minutes and document what happened during your meeting .

In which case, the documentation can make sense because the delivery of the verbal warning/reprimand was done in the course of the coaching or counselling session. You are documenting the bigger process of coaching or counselling session, not just the verbal penalty. It just gets mentioned there. See? Now it makes sense.

My recommendation: the hybrid

My favorite though, is the hybrid solution. Here's how it goes: deliver the verbal warning or reprimand 100% verbally to the employee. Afterwards, you go back to your office, pull out the employee's 201 file, and then make a notation that on this date, you delivered the verbal warning or reprimand with a stern warning that any repetition may lead to heavier sanctions in the future.

Why do I like this? Well, first off, it stays true to the title of "verbal" because as far as the employee is concerned, you never went beyond verbally giving the feedback. There is nothing to spark confusion. At the same time, you are able to document the process because you made the notation on the 201 file. Best of both worlds as far as I’m concerned.

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Again to recap

Just in case you got lost in the discussion, here are the points to consider:

  • Yes , verbal reprimands or warnings are allowed under the law under the principle of management prerogative.
  • you get to decide which situations call for a verbal warning or a verbal reprimand . this is discretionary.
  • when delivering the purple warning or reprimand , don't confuse your employees by issuing a written document along with it .
  • if you want to issue a written document along with the warning or reprimand , then just refrain from calling it verbal in the first place because it causes confusion.
  • best practice: use the hybrid method of delivering the reprimand or warning verbally and afterwards making a written note in the employees 201 file that on this date , you talk to him about that particular subject .

Hope this helped!

Hope this article was able to clear a thing or two for you regarding this penalty method.

This topic usually gets asked when I discuss discipline and termination issues with employers. I am planning to create more materials to help with discipline issues in the future, but I need your help in sorting out what questions matter. There may be other stuff that you're grappling with but I missed. I'm offering the chance to answer your questions in future materials and courses.

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