Verbal and Written Warnings: 4 Things to Know

Verbal and written warnings are a head’s up from your employer that all is not well. If you’ve received a verbal or written warning, you may be anxious about your job.  Here are four things you should know if you’ve received a verbal or written warning or a performance improvement plan.

1.Verbal and Written Warnings May be Progressive Discipline

Many companies have written policies that include verbal and written warnings.  These policies are often contained in handbooks.  Employers typically use what’s known as “progressive discipline” to address employee performance issues.  Employee performance issues are often related to attendance, communication style, conflicts in the workplace, issues with not completing projects and failure to meet sales or revenue.

Progressive discipline means that the employer may use an escalating set of tools to address employee conduct.  The employer may escalate the progressive discipline from verbal warnings to written warnings and then to performance improvement plans.  Many employee policies say that the company reserves the right to terminate an employee before completing the steps of progressive discipline.  If you’ve received a verbal or written warning, it’s important to know where you stand in the process.  An employment lawyer can help you.

2. Employers May Use Verbal and Written Warnings to Document Performance Issues

Employers use a variety of tools to document performance issues.  Many use performance evaluations as a tool.  HR managers and company leadership also use verbal and written warnings to “document” employee performance issues.  Employers may want to build a record of performance issues with certain employees.  An HR file with a solid record of performance issues may make it more difficult for an employee to assert a wrongful termination claim.

Many employees become anxious when they receive verbal and written warnings.  It is too easy to act in an impulsive manner and respond inappropriately.  An employment lawyer can help you work through how to respond to these types on warnings.  It can be important to preserve the relationship with your employer.  In other cases, where you have a gut feeling a termination is coming, an employment lawyer can help you with a job transition.  Many employees are concerned about their reputation, unemployment benefits, stock options, and health insurance.  An employment lawyer can help you address these issues.

3.  Companies May “Manage Out” Employees with A Record of Verbal and Written Warnings

Many managers use verbal and written warnings because they hope that an employee will turn around.  The same is true for performance improvement plans.  It may be an effort to get the employee to change certain behaviors, such as being late to work, failing to deliver on projects, or failing to meet quotas, revenue or sales.  On the other hand, many employers use progressive discipline in order to “manage out” employees.  A solid record of performance issues helps protect employers from wrongful termination or discrimination claims.

If your gut tells you that you are being “managed out,” it is a good time to seek legal counsel.  A lawyer can advise you on your rights. An employment attorney can also tell you what not to do.  Many employees listen to well meaning but anxious spouses and partners, parents and children.  Family members may urge the employee to “take action to protect yourself.”  We often find that the actions employees take under stress are ill-advised.  An employment lawyer can therefore advise you on appropriate action to take if you have a record of verbal and written warnings or a performance improvement plan.  If you feel that you have been subjected to a hostile work environment or targeted by management or your supervisor, you should contact an employment lawyer.  We advise employees on the rights in the workplace.

4.  Verbal or Written Warnings Mean It’s Time to Pay Attention

Verbal or written warnings are a head’s up from your employer that all is not well.  Too many employees ignore verbal warnings, written warnings and performance improvement plans.  It’s easy to rationalize that other employees received them as well, or it’s not a big deal.   On the contrary, it’s usually a huge red flag that the employee needs to pay attention.  Many employees who are terminated after receiving poor performance evaluations, warnings or a performance improvement plan are surprised.  They may feel that a termination “came out of left field,” when actually there were warning signs along the way.

It’s important to take appropriate steps to protect your reputation.  It’s also important to consult with legal counsel to find out your legal rights.  Many employees who have strong discrimination claims are managed out of their jobs.  In addition, certain steps by employers may constitute retaliation.  If you have a record of warnings or poor evaluations or a performance improvement plan, it’s time to get solid advice.  Many employees take steps that inadvertently further damage the employer-employee relationship.  An employment attorney can advise you on steps to take to preserve your reputation and your ability to find another job.  If necessary, an employment lawyer can help you to negotiate a smooth and dignified job transition.  We know, because it’s what we do every day.

Maura Greene is a Boston employment attorney.  She is on the list of Super Lawyers for Employment and has an AV-rating, which is the highest rating an individual attorney may achieve.   She has been quoted in the Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram and Gazette on employment matters.   Please call us at 617-936-1580 or contact our employment team at [email protected] to discuss your matter in confidence.  Call us, we’re friendly!  

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