No business owner hires a team of employees with intentions of needing to conduct disciplinary procedures.

The harsh reality, however, is that they will be required at one time or another. That's why it's so important to have a verbal warning at work procedure in place. 

Some employers use a verbal warning as the first stage of such formal action; however, it may be better to consider a written warning to avoid any ambiguity over what has been said.

The definition of a verbal warning

Verbal warnings are sometimes used as the first, and therefore least severe, type of formal discipline.

Employers may need to utilise a verbal warning in several situations, but it is ultimately used to express displeasure at an employee’s current conduct.

It additionally serves to inform the culprit that failure to improve will lead to further formal action.

The employer’s displeasure may relate to the employee’s work, behaviour, or actions within the workplace.

A verbal warning is ordinarily appropriate for the first instance of minor misconduct or minor infringements of company policies which would not warrant a written warning, for example:

In today’s climate, this can often extend to how the staff member represents the brand, particularly online.

A verbal warning is more serious than any informal discussion and should be respected by employers and employees alike.

Unlike informal suggestions, a formal verbal warning will be recognised in employment law.

Therefore, records showing that a verbal warning was given can be used by an employer defending an unfair dismissal claim as evidence that a fair disciplinary procedure was followed.

Resources to help your business

Letter of Concern (template)

Before giving a formal verbal warning

While a verbal warning is not as serious as some disciplinary actions, such as written warnings and dismissal, it is still a formal situation.

Therefore, it may be possible to reach a better conclusion through informal warnings.

In cases of minor misconduct, an informal discussion between the employee and their manager may be enough to trigger improvement without the need for any formal disciplinary action to be taken. 

When giving an informal warning, it is essential to inform the employee that failure to improve will result in the formal disciplinary procedure being invoked to manage their expectations.

Any informal warning should only be verbal, as confirmation of the warning in writing will most likely transform it into a formal verbal warning, which requires a much more thorough process to be followed, as outlined below.

It is advisable to keep a record of the informal warning to allow for effective management, but informal warnings must not be considered during any future disciplinary proceedings.

It is important to note that not all employees respond well to informal discussions, which is why employers should not fear the prospect of using formal verbal warnings.

Although we advise trying to resolve a misconduct issue informally before considering formal disciplinary action, this will not always be appropriate.

In some instances of more serious misconduct, it may be necessary to go straight to a formal verbal warning or even a first written warning, even if the employee has no outstanding warnings.

The verbal warning procedure

Given that verbal warnings are a formal disciplinary action, it is imperative that you follow the right procedures.

Even if they are usually used as a result of a first or minor infringement of the company policies, their significance should not be dismissed.

Employers have a responsibility to get it right as this will provide clarity for the employee while simultaneously protecting the company’s best interests.

When issuing a verbal warning, the following steps are necessary:

  • A record of the misdemeanours or conflict of the company procedures should be noted in advance as the employee deserves to hear the complaint in a clear and concise fashion.
  • The employee should be taken to a quiet location before having the displeasure explained in a calm yet unambiguous fashion, including the consequences if things don’t change.
  • They should be made aware that a verbal warning is the first stage of the formal disciplinary procedure and that further misconduct or failure to improve will lead to a more serious penalty being imposed.
  • Any explanations provided by the employee should be considered before the verbal warning is issued.
  • Following the verbal warning, the employer should record the details of what was said and file them in the employee’s employment record. This should be dated.
  • The employee should be sent a letter to confirm that the formal verbal warning was issued and how long the warning will last for. A copy should be kept in the company files too.
  • It is a smart move to create or download a standardised verbal warning form for recording purposes.

Essentially, a formal verbal warning needs to be given the same level of care and attention as any other disciplinary action.

Doing this is in the best interests of the company, employer and employee.

In practice, the only difference between a formal verbal warning and a written warning is that the reasons for the warning and its purpose are explained verbally to the employee.

However, as a verbal warning must still be confirmed in writing, we generally advise having a first written warning as the first stage of formal disciplinary action instead.

This still meets the requirements of a fair disciplinary procedure, and it avoids any confusion over what was discussed as everything is put in writing.

After giving a verbal warning

Following a verbal warning, employees should be given a right to respond and contest the decision through an appeal process.

As explained above, it is essential that a record of the verbal warning is maintained.

It may seem odd that a verbal warning must be written down but doing so provides evidence that you have given a warning to the employee and will enable you to advance to more serious disciplinary sanctions further down the line if necessary.

Many employers promise to disregard the complaint if improvements are shown within a set period of time.

There is no legal timeframe that applies to disciplinary warnings, however, there is a general expectation that formal verbal warnings will remain ‘live’ on an employee’s disciplinary record for six months.

This means that the warning can be used when deciding on subsequent and more serious disciplinary action in the following six months.

Once the warning has expired, the warning can be kept on the employee’s record, but it cannot be referred to in disciplinary proceedings.

Ultimately the purpose of verbal warnings is to encourage employees to get better. At this stage, escalating things further should be viewed as a last resort.

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About the author 

James Rowland

James is the Commercial Director at Neathouse Partners and regularly writes articles surrounding issues in HR & Employment Law. Outside of the office, James is a keen Cricketer, playing in the Cheshire League for Nantwich CC. He also loves going to watch his football team, Crewe Alexandra. Feel free to connect with James on LinkedIn.

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