What is a verbal warning at work?

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What is a verbal warning at work?


It is a fact of life that now and then, employers need to issue verbal warnings to their employees. Workplaces are made up of people from all walks of life, and it is inevitable that there will be conflict from time to time. A verbal warning is a way for an employer to let an employee know that their behavior is not acceptable and needs to change.

Despite its impact, the verbal warning is a comparatively flexible tool that employers can adapt according to the severity of the situation.




What is a verbal warning ?


A verbal warning is where an employer verbally deals with issues such as misconduct or poor performance. The verbal warning will often be the first stage of a disciplinary process.

It will:

  • State what the problem is
  • Explain what the employee needs to do to improve
  • Set a timescale for improvement
  • Warn the employee that further action may be taken if they do not improve.

A verbal warning should always be confirmed in writing within a reasonable period of time. This will help to show that it took place and what was said during the meeting.


What is the difference between verbal and written warnings ?


The main difference between verbal and written warnings is that a verbal warning is given orally, while the written one is given in writing.

A verbal warning is less serious than a written warning and is often used as a first step in the disciplinary process.

The oral forewarning is the first stage of a disciplinary process, and a written warning usually follows if an employee fails to make the changes specified in the first one.

A verbal warning will stay on an employee's records for a set period, such as six months. A written warning will usually remain in an employee's records for 12 months.


What is the difference between formal and informal verbal warnings ?


There are two types of verbal warnings: informal verbal warnings and formal verbal warnings.

An informal verbal warning is typically a discreet conversation between a supervisor and employee where the supervisor tells the employee that they need to stop doing something or make a change. It might take place in a 121 or similar meeting.

A formal verbal warning is often the first step in a formal disciplinary procedure. To give an employee a formal oral forewarning, the employer must invite the employee to a formal disciplinary meeting with the outcome of that meeting. It should be put in writing and sent to the employee to tell them they have been given an oral warning.

The employer should also make the employee aware that the warning will stay on their records for a set period, such as six months. Suppose the employee does not change their behavior or improve their work. In that case, the verbal warning is recognized as stage one in the disciplinary process, ready for the next step, which is normally a written warning.

After all, this depends on company policy. In most companies, a formal oral warning is the first stage in the disciplinary process and is referred to as a 'verbal warning' even though the employee receives a write-up.

A written warning usually follows a formal verbal one if the employee fails to make the required changes as specified before.


Best practice for issuing a verbal warning at work


There is no definitive answer as to what counts as best practice when issuing an oral warning. However, there are some key points that employers should bear in mind.


1) Make sure the verbal warning is necessary

If an employee has made a one-off mistake, it might be best to let them off with an informal verbal warning. Conversely, if they have committed a serious offense or their performance has been poor for some time, an oral warning might not be appropriate.


2) Be aware of the signs that an employee is struggling

If an employee is displaying signs that they are struggling in their role, it might be best to have a meeting with them to see if there are any underlying issues.


3) Consider using an oral warning as an opportunity to coach and develop

If an employee is struggling with their work, a warning can be used as an opportunity to offer them some coaching and development. This could involve signposting them to relevant resources or training courses.


4) Make sure the oral warning is documented

An oral forewarning should always be confirmed in writing within a reasonable period. This will help to show that the verbal warning took place and what was said during the meeting.


5) Keep a record of verbal warnings

Employers should keep a record to show that they have been consistent in their approach to disciplinary matters.


6) Be aware of the difference between formal and informal verbal warnings

An informal oral warning is typically a discreet conversation between a supervisor and an employee. The supervisor tells the employee that they need to stop doing something or make a change. At the same time, a formal one is often the first step in a proper disciplinary procedure.


7) Be clear about what the employee needs to do to improve

The verbal warning should make it clear to the employee what they need to do to improve their work or behavior. This could involve setting some specific targets.


8) Make sure the verbal warning is delivered in a professional manner

It should be delivered in a professional and calm manner. Avoid raising your voice or using aggressive language.


9) Follow up the verbal warning with a written record

It is important to follow up with the employee after the verbal warning to see if they have made any improvement. If not, you may need to consider taking further disciplinary action.

Verbal warnings are a useful tool for employers. It is important to avoid sounding confrontational or angry.

It is essential to follow up the verbal warning with a written record as mentioned above.


10) Seek advice from HR if necessary

If you are unsure whether to issue a verbal warning or how to do it, it is advisable to seek guidance from HR. They will be able to advise you on the best course of action.

Not all employees respond well to formal disciplinary action. Therefore, it is best to stay calm and use an informal approach to address minor problems affecting an employee's performance or behavior as a rule of thumb.

One-to-one meetings and the performance management process provides the ideal opportunity to help manage these minor workplace issues. It may simply be a case of pointing out that performance isn't up to scratch or asking the employee to take a training course so they understand that their behavior is not acceptable.

These actions are formally known as the pre-disciplinary procedure. Even though these actions are informal, it is important for the supervisor to make a note of the actions taken so that there is a full record available.

For more serious or repeated breaches of expectations, verbal or written warnings are necessary.

It is best practice for a business to set out its disciplinary procedure for all employees to read in a company handbook or alongside the code of conduct. This gives workers clarity about what happens should they fail to comply with company policies or repeatedly underperform. By being transparent and making sure all employees are aware of what is expected of them, a business may be able to prevent some of the need for disciplinary action in the workplace.


The main steps in issuing a verbal warning


If an employee's poor performance or behavior continues to the point where more formal intervention is needed, an employer should follow the ACAS code of practice. This will ensure the disciplinary procedure is fair and consistent, protecting both the employer and employee.


1. Establish the facts

The employer must gather the facts behind the allegation. This could include interviews with other employees, attendance records, performance data, and so on.


2. Inform the employee

The employee should be formally notified that they will be subject to a disciplinary meeting. They should also be told why this is the case. This notification should include an invitation to the disciplinary meeting and give the employee enough time to prepare, for example, 3-5 days.


3. Hold the meeting

The employee should be allowed to choose a companion to accompany them to the meeting - this would normally be a fellow worker, trade union representative, or trade union official. The companion has the right to confer with the employee during the hearing, sum up the worker's case and respond to any views expressed at the meeting on behalf of the employee.

At the meeting, both parties put their case across. The employer explains the basis for the meeting and allows the employee or their representative to fully express their case.


4. Decide on appropriate action

The employer must decide on appropriate and reasonable next steps with all evidence presented. In addition to determining whether or not misconduct has occurred or the employee is performing beneath expectations, the employer should consider details such as mitigating circumstances and historical precedents.

If misconduct or poor performance is confirmed on a minor level or for the first time, it is normal to issue an oral warning. Even though it is called a verbal warning, the employee receives a document that confirms the oral forewarning is stored as a written record on the employee's file.

This document should include details of how long the warning stays in place and the consequences of failure to improve or of continued misconduct. If relevant, details of further action should also be included. This might include altered working hours, attending a training course, or being partnered with a mentor.

Confusingly, it is not a written warning even though the warning is written down. It is simply a written record of the oral one and serves as documentation of it.


5. Give the employee the opportunity to appeal

If the employee believes that the disciplinary action taken against them was unfair or wrong, they have the right to appeal. The appeal should be heard without reasonable delay and at an agreed time and place. The appeal should be dealt with impartially by someone who was not previously involved in the case.

Verbal warning


Verbal Warning FAQs


As with other forms of disciplinary action, striking the right balance between laissez-faire and overly strict can feel difficult for employers. Here are some of the most commonly asked questions.


When is a verbal warning appropriate ?

It is appropriate in a range of circumstances which include:

  • Unsatisfactory performance, for example, too many mistakes or being slow to complete tasks
  • Inappropriate behavior, as detailed in the code of conduct
  • Being consistently late
  • Bad attitude
  • Ignoring company policies as listed in the staff handbook
  • Unsafe behavior
  • Persistent absenteeism.

Whether an employee receives a formal warning or an informal warning depends very much on company policy. Typically, an organization will give informal warnings first to make the employee aware that they are not behaving or performing in line with expectations. This then progresses to a formal warning if the employee doesn't make the requested changes.

In some cases, employers may move straight to a formal oral forewarning, such as in the case of harassment or unsafe behavior.


Who can give a verbal warning ?

A manager or supervisor can give it. The person giving the warning should be someone who has the authority to do so and has been appropriately trained in conducting disciplinary meetings.

Managers and supervisors should give verbal warnings. It is not appropriate for a peer to verbally warn other employees.


Do verbal warnings need to be documented ?

Informal verbal warnings do not need to be documented. However, it is advisable for the manager to make some informal notes and reinforce the points made in their conversation in an email to the employee.

A formal verbal warning does need a write-up; this is known as a written form of warning. This is sent to the employee and added as a written record that is added to the employee's file.

The documentation should include :

  • The date of the verbal warning
  • What the employee did or did not do
  • Details of any improvement required
  • The timeframe for this improvement
  • Consequences if the employee does not improve
  • The signature of both the employee and the manager
  • This document is placed in the employee's personnel file.

While verbal warnings do not have to be given in writing, it is good practice to do so. This documentation serves as a record of the it and can be used if further action is required.


How long does a verbal warning last ?

A verbal warning is usually active for a set period, after which it is no longer valid. The timeframe depends on company policy but is typically between 3 and 6 months

Suppose an employee receives another verbal warning during this period. In that case, the previous verbal warning will be taken into account, and the employee may face more serious consequences, such as a final warning.

If an employee has not improved by the end of the verbal warning period, this will be discussed in a review meeting, and further action may be taken.

Generally, there is no legal guidance; however, verbal warnings typically last for 6 months, although this is dependent on company policy.


Do verbal warnings show up on an employee's record ?

A verbal warning is usually documented in the employee's personnel file. This will be taken into account if further disciplinary action is required.

Suppose an employee is dismissed and brings a claim of unfair dismissal. In that case, the employer may use oral warnings to show that they took appropriate steps to address the employee's behavior or performance.

An informal warning, such as one given during a 121, will not show up on an employee's personnel file. However, a formal verbal warning given as part of a company's disciplinary process remains 'live' for the amount of time stated in the company policy - such as six months.

After this time, the warning will remain on the employee's record but cannot be used for disciplinary purposes.


Can an employee get fired after a verbal warning ?

If an employee does not improve after a verbal warning, the company may choose to issue a final warning. This is usually the last step before dismissal.

A verbal warning is not usually sufficient grounds for dismissal; however, if an employee receives multiple verbal warnings or a verbal warning and a final warning, this could lead to dismissal. It is important to follow company policy when issuing verbal warnings and keep accurate records. These will be crucial if an employee needs to be dismissed.

In most cases, an employer gives an employee three chances - one verbal warning and two written warnings. However, this is not always the case. It is also important to recognize that in the case of gross misconduct, an employee's contract can be terminated instantly. This is known as summary dismissal.

Employees should be encouraged to take verbal warnings seriously. Failing to improve or refusing to change behavior can eventually lead to the termination of that employee's contract.




Ultimately, verbal warnings are a tool to encourage employees to perform at their best and to behave in accordance with their employer's expectations. Used carefully, informal oral warnings can course-correct employees by providing advice and support to help them improve.

Formal verbal warnings are a step in a company's disciplinary process and can be used as evidence if an employee is dismissed. While they are not always required in writing, it is best practice to document them. This provides a record of the warning and can be used if further action needs to be taken.

It is important for a business to understand the correct way to deal with verbal warnings as this will not only mean better employee engagement but will also reduce the risk of a company being brought to a tribunal.

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