Issuing a Verbal Warning at Work: What Managers Need to Know

Being in a management position means you’ll occasionally have to issue a verbal warning to an employee who doesn’t meet your expectations. Enforcing disciplinary action takes practice to correct employee issues or behavior effectively, but it’s necessary to ensure high-quality employee performance. Explore information and tips about how to issue a verbal warning at work to improve your confidence and gain positive outcomes.
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What is a verbal warning at work?

Verbal warnings in the workplace are used to discipline employees who have violated one or more of your company policies or have displayed unacceptable conduct in the workplace. These situations require immediate action and correspondence to let the employee know that their behavior or performance isn’t meeting the company’s standards. It’s usually the first step in the disciplinary process and gives the employee a chance to improve their performance or behaviors before more severe action takes place.

Common reasons for issuing a verbal warning at work

Verbal warnings let employees know when their performance or behaviors don’t match your standards and expectations. Some common reasons for issuing a verbal warning at work include:

  • Absenteeism: An employee who misses work frequently hurts your productivity and increases your costs. Absenteeism costs U.S. companies $225.8 billion every year, according to the CDC Foundation. Discuss the frequent absences with the employee and make a plan to improve attendance.
  • Poor performance: An employee who keeps making the same mistakes, doesn’t work as a team member, misses deadlines or lacks motivation at work might need a verbal warning to improve.
  • Ignoring safety procedures: Skipping important safety steps puts the employee, other workers and your company at risk. Issue a verbal warning first to remind the employee of the importance of safety.
  • Breaking company policies: You have company policies and procedures that you expect all employees to follow. For a first offense, issuing a verbal warning can help correct the issue.

How to issue a verbal warning

Here are some steps you can take to issue a verbal warning easily and appropriately:

1. Take the employee into a private room

Always discuss issues with employees in a private office/room or video call (if your company is remote). Let them know the general reason why you need to meet before you bring them into the room. Other employees shouldn’t be involved in the matter. However, you may include another supervisor as a witness who can recount what was discussed in the meeting. You might also allow the employee to bring in a coworker or someone for support if they want.

2. State the issue clearly

Get straight to the point and let the employee know exactly what the issue is. Explain why their actions are a concern or problem for the organization. Give a specific example of the issue.

3. Discuss the changes they should make

Let the employee know they’re valuable and you want them to change their behavior. Make sure you’re specific about the changes that they need to make. A performance improvement plan (PIP) can define specific steps and expectations to avoid confusion.

4. Provide a timeframe for correction

Establish a timeframe for correcting the issue to avoid further disciplinary action. This can be one month, three months or six months depending on the issue that needs to be corrected and your organization’s policies or objectives.

5. State consequences

Make the employee aware of the consequences if they fail to correct the current issue within the timeframe you give them. This gives them the opportunity to understand the seriousness of the matter and correct their behavior accordingly.

6. Provide support for change

Provide necessary support to help the employee make the required changes. If the employee isn’t performing their job duties correctly, they might need additional training/tools or a mentor to make it easier. An employee who is consistently late might benefit from a flexible work schedule.

Best practices for issuing a verbal warning

Issuing verbal warnings productively takes some practice. Here are some tips that can help you know what to do and what not to do.

What to do:

  • Keep your tone professional: The employee will probably follow your lead. If you remain professional, then they likely will too.
  • Keep a record of verbal warnings: Document the correspondence and store it in the employee’s file for future reference. If the employee doesn’t improve and you take additional action, you have the records to show a pattern of behavior.
  • Send a follow-up email: Follow up with the employee a week or two after the verbal warning to check their progress.
  • Offer your help: Let them know you’re willing to help them and answer any questions they have.
  • Stay calm: There’s a chance the employee may become upset. In this situation, it’s essential that you remain calm and assure them that you want them to succeed.

What not to do:

  • Bring up other issues: Keep the situation fair to the employee by staying focused on the behavior for which you’re issuing a verbal warning.
  • Belittle the employee: When you give an employee a verbal warning at work, show your respect for them, and remind them of the value they bring to your organization.
  • Ignore problematic behavior: Even if you really like the employee and would prefer not to issue a warning, it’s important to address problematic behavior to keep it from happening again in the future. 
  • Lack consistency: Issue verbal warnings for the same behaviors from all employees. If you give a verbal warning to one employee for failing to meet deadlines but ignore another employee’s missed deadlines, you’re treating employees unfairly which can create a negative company culture.

Verbal warning sample

The following verbal warning sample gives you an idea of how to handle a situation with an employee:

“On January 22nd, you were 15 minutes late to work. We adjusted your schedule to allow you to work 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. instead of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to accommodate you. You were also instructed to let us know when you would be late due to extenuating circumstances. As of March 17th, you have been late six more times, and you failed to call or text with valid reasons for your tardiness. 

It’s crucial that you’re on time, especially on the days we have our morning meetings. When you’re not on time, other employees must handle opening procedures. You also miss key information regarding the day ahead, and supervisors must take extra time to repeat the information to you when you arrive.

You need to show up on time every day from this point onward. Future tardiness without good reason may result in further disciplinary action and possible termination of employment. I’m here to help, and I’ll be scheduling weekly meetings with you to discuss the actions you’re taking to be on time.”

Verbal warning FAQs


How might I explain in a verbal warning that if the employee doesn’t fix the problem, we may need to take further disciplinary action?

The best way to explain further disciplinary action is to do so simply and directly. This is why it’s important to put a little pressure on the employee to change their behavior or fix the problem by a certain date. It gives them a clear and attainable goal, and they’re more likely to take the employee warning seriously. Explain that if they don’t change by this date, there may be further disciplinary actions taken.

Should I write a summary of the verbal warning?

If you end up terminating the employee later on, it can be useful to have a record of all disciplinary correspondence. This gives you evidence in case they refute and make allegations against the company stating they were never made aware of the issues or given ample time to fix them before termination. You can provide a written overview of the verbal warning, even though it’s not a formal written warning, to have for their records. Keep accurate notes and mark all dates that you follow up with the employee to check on their progress.

Do employers have to issue verbal warnings before written warnings?

You choose how you handle employee disciplinary actions, including when to use verbal or written warnings. A verbal warning typically comes before a written warning since a write-up at work tends to be more serious. If the same issue happens again after the verbal warning or the employee doesn’t improve, you might issue a written warning. However, you can skip the verbal warning, especially for a serious issue. Establish a policy on verbal and written warnings that defines when and how you use each type.

Is a verbal warning a formal warning?

A verbal warning is usually an informal warning. Even though it’s not a formal written warning, it’s still a good idea to document a verbal warning. This information helps you track the employee’s development, and it can be important if you fire the employee in the future.

Can employees appeal a verbal warning?

Employees usually have the right to appeal any disciplinary action, including a verbal warning. This can be especially true if the verbal warning comes with additional disciplinary action, such as consequences if the behavior or performance doesn’t improve. Most companies document verbal warnings in the employee’s file, so being able to appeal if it was issued unfairly also helps the employee maintain good standing with the company. An unfair verbal warning could hurt the employee’s chances of getting a promotion or receiving a good reference if it’s in their permanent record.

If an employee appeals your verbal warning, here are some tips for how to write an appeal letter response. 

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