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How to Write a Warning Letter to an Employee (Samples)

Penelope Lynn Ananiadis-McAravey
Penelope Lynn Ananiadis-McAravey

Business Owner, HR Consultant and Freelance Writer

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

computer screen with written employee warning letter email

Every company is entitled to satisfactory conduct and performance from their employees. Unfortunately, from time to time there is a shortfall. It is never a good idea to ignore this, and so warning letters become a necessary intervention.

Writing any type of warning letter can be a breeze. You just need to get the hang of it. Once you have learned the essential ingredients that must be in the warning letter, you can do a really good job when writing them. You’ll then have confidence that the letter will be effective.

After all, you don’t want to find yourself having to write an employment termination letter because the recipient of the initial warning letter failed to respond.

Benefits of employee warning letters

Employee warning letters can be worth their weight in gold, as nobody actually wants to dismiss an employee. You’ve usually invested a substantial amount of your time, energy and resources. It’s a huge waste to short circuit anyone’s career. Not to mention the disruption and trauma created before, during and after their departure.

The main benefit of a warning letter is that it affords the greatest opportunity to recover from many potential losses. Here are a few of the other benefits:

1. It shows good management

Line managers are accountable for discipline and performance in accordance with company rules and standards. In the face of deviations or under-delivery, failing to take action can actually be negligent and can look like a lack of management to the higher-ups in the company. Issuing warnings when performance isn’t adequate demonstrates commitment to your role.

2. It creates boundaries

Warnings give substance to company policies, rules, standards and requirements. In some instances, employees might not take their obligations seriously without these policies and boundaries. Company performance, efficiency and smooth operation would be at risk.

3. It shows you care

At the heart of any warning letter is the desire by the employer to correct wrongdoing in order to benefit the company as a whole. We can make this extremely clear when issuing warning letter. Goodwill will actually be preserved if giving warnings is approached honestly and with integrity.

4. It allows you to connect with employees

Warning letters go beyond simply being an important contractual record to safeguard the company and management. Warning letters actually give us another opportunity to connect constructively with employees on important work-related matters.

5. It shows that you’re fair

Warning letters reinforce that management is concerned with being fair and equal to all. The focus is on taking action to prevent a future reoccurrence. The experience is not one of exacting punishment, but presenting an opportunity to learn, grow and improve.

6. It establishes authority

Warning letters establish appropriate authority within the company. The role of line management is to set clear expectations on standards of behavior and holding employees responsible.

What to include in a warning letter?

Remember that each warning letter is unique. It should reflect not only the views of the writer, but the company’s position on matters of misconduct or performance, and also incorporate the generally accepted organizational style for such letters.

It is therefore a good idea to review a few different letters within your organization before you begin drafting a warning letter. To optimize the letter, a logical sequential flow is best. It is critical to incorporate the following elements into any employee warning letter:

1. Date the letter is being issued.

2. Employee reference details (such as their name, address and employee number).

3. Letter heading confirming the letter is in fact a warning letter (final warnings should be noted as such).

4. Precise details of the employee’s misconduct or poor performance. You’ll need to include times, dates and the nature of the misconduct or poor performance, the impact on the workplace and future disciplinary actions that will follow if the misconduct is repeated, or performance does not improve.

5. Your findings on the misconduct or poor performance, justifying the sanction of the warning letter.

6. Any items raised in aggravation or mitigation, such as prior warnings, financial or other impact of the misconduct on the business. It’s important to note that the employee’s length of service and clean disciplinary records may be important factors to consider.

7. Clarity of future behavioral expectations in terms of standards and requirements or reinforcement of rules to be followed. For poor performance, an improvement plan is warranted.

8. Duration that the warning will be in place on the employee’s employment record, plus mandatory review periods and support that will be given to the employees.

9. Any appeal mechanisms that would apply.

10. Signatures of management and the employee, plus any witnesses. Where an employee refuses to sign a warning letter, a witness is necessary to confirm the warning letter has been thoroughly explained and issued.

Tips for writing a warning letter

The golden rule for giving any warning related to misconduct or performance is that employees should never be surprised at the outcome if a turnaround or progress is not achieved. Justice is pivotal. Sylvia Melena, founder and CEO of Melena Consulting Group, agrees that justice in the workplace is important to maintain an employee’s wellbeing.

The objective is to construct an instructional warning letter that strikes the right balance in terms of gravity of the incident and motivation for improvement. Here are some tips to consider when drafting the letter:

1. Be clear

It is important to specify the breach, whether it’s a rule or company standard.

The first paragraph of any warning letter should reference the nature of the misconduct or poor performance. This is done by setting out the finding from the incident investigation. All pertinent facts should be covered. This will vary according to the category of misconduct and the specific finding and circumstances linked to each unique case being dealt with.

For example, in the case of an absenteeism matter, you’ll need to provide the number of days the person was absent, including the dates, as well as what the company did to try and contact the person during the absence.

2. Substantiate your findings

It is essential to say why an employee would have a clear knowledge and awareness of rules, standards and requirements. At the very least, they should have a reasonable awareness, even at a common-sense level.

In the case of absenteeism, for example, one might mention that attendance rules are contained in employee contracts. There may also be heaps of other instructive references, such as induction orientation, staff manuals, general communication reminders and the like. If prior counseling or warnings for a similar offence have been previously issued/communicated as well, these should be mentioned.

3. Reinforce employee obligations

Warning letters should always be direct in approach and articulate the employee’s obligations to the company. Use evidence to highlight the company’s previous discussions on the related topic, whether it be absenteeism, misconduct or something else.

For example, the letter on absenteeism could incorporate information about your company HR operational manual and when this was last reviewed with the employee.

4. Make sure to highlight the consequences

Reinforcing the relevance and importance of a rule or standard within the workplace is extremely helpful. Employees need to put themselves in the shoes of the employer and reflect on how what they have done affects operational viability of the business and impacts others within this environment.

Employees should appreciate that they have an inherent contractual duty to safeguard the employer’s interests. Just as employers have a duty of care towards their employees, employees must strive to contribute to the performance and smooth operation of the business.

Negative operational impact includes things like absenteeism disrupting team activities, lowering productivity, causing customer delays, etc. Warning letters point to aggravating factors, especially if there has been a failure to respond to the company’s prior corrective disciplinary efforts.

5. Be consistent

It’s important that the application of sanctions for various infringements must be consistently applied to all employees. You shouldn’t dismiss one employee for a first offence of excessive and patterned absenteeism, for example, if you have been through a progressive disciplinary approach with others.

6. Be comprehensive

Reasons for issuing a warning letter, rather than taking other measures, should also be offered. The assessed seriousness of the misconduct and its ramifications should be pointed out. It’s important that employees get the full picture of the thinking and judgement that has gone into the decision to issue the letter and gives you an opportunity to show the company’s mercy, if you will.

7. Explain the objective

Stating the primary objective of the issuing of the warning letter is crucial and should include information about the disciplinary procedure and process. Your explanation should help employees appreciate why the warning is an appropriate sanction under the particular circumstances.

8. Emphasize what is essential

Once you have dealt with the misconduct in your letter, you need to focus on the future. This means telling employees directly what needs to change to make the future bright once more. You need to make sure what you stipulate is reasonable. This could be displayed in a bulleted list showing what steps to take in future or be more comprehensive if it’s a complex issue that’s being addressed.

9. Insist on employee ownership

Whilst management is there to support and encourage employees, ultimately it is their job to be compliant with the reasonable contractual demands of the employer. Remind them to take responsibility for their own actions in order to benefit the company on a whole.

10. Remind employees of what is at stake

Finally, it’s important to be crystal clear on the immediate consequences of the warning letter. Explain clearly the next steps, and what the consequences are if things don’t improve. You could also go into the issues the business will face if things don’t change, and how this will affect the employee going forward.

Employee warning letter examples

Take a look at some of these warning letter examples to help you see the full picture of what can be achieved with minimal effort.

Example 1

written warning letter to employee example

Example 2

simple warning letter example for employee

Final thoughts 

It is worth remembering, at some point, the employee was deemed to be the best or most suitable person for the job. When constructing warning letters, you revisit what it is that really makes a person our first choice for a role.

Whilst warning letters can be interpreted as threatening, the employment relationship is still very much intact. The hope is always expressed that confidence and trust in the employee and their contribution can be restored. Many guides can be consulted to understand the options available when employees breach their contracts.

Because warning letters uphold the structure and functioning essential to the smooth operation of any business, there is always a mutual underlying respect demanded in the process. This is the magic in the exchange that will invariably secure commitment and the right positive response.

So, make your warning letters thorough and compelling in the interest of achieving acceptable delivery by everyone.

Have you ever had to write a written warning letter? What did you include? Let us know in the comments below!


This is an updated version of an article originally published on 12 December 2018.