Verbal Warnings at Work

11 September 2020

If an employee is underperforming, or misbehaving at work, you may need to take action to address the issue.

The first step in a formal disciplinary procedure is to issue a verbal warning.

It’s important to follow a step-by-step process if you need to take disciplinary action.

There are various Irish employment laws that provide employees with rights and as an employer, you must comply with your statutory obligations to avoid employee claims.

In this guide, we explain how to handle a verbal warning, your employee’s rights, and the process you need to follow to remain compliant with Irish employment laws.

What is a verbal warning?

A disciplinary process follows escalating steps and the verbal warning is the first stage of a formal disciplinary process.

Before issuing a verbal warning, you should note that you are effectively initiating a disciplinary process and the principles of natural justice, fair procedures, and equity apply equally to this stage as they do at the latter stages of a disciplinary procedure.

The verbal warning meeting

To ensure you are treating the employee fairly, invite them to a meeting and advise them that they have the right to be accompanied by a colleague or other representative (other than a legal representative like a solicitor).

At the meeting, let the employee know the nature of the problem (i.e., is it conduct or performance-related?) and invite the employee to state their case.

Remember the purpose of this meeting is investigatory and you should not make any decisions in relation to issuing a verbal warning until you have a full understanding of the circumstances.

Written confirmation of the verbal warning

After the meeting, consider the position and if necessary issue a letter to the employee confirming the outcome.

If the employee doesn’t give a satisfactory response for their shortcomings at the meeting, confirm in writing that you are issuing a verbal warning.

The letter should also include details of the conduct or performance issues that triggered the warning along with a way to rectify the problem and a timeframe within which the employee can demonstrate an improvement.

How long does a verbal warning last?

The letter should also state how long the warning will remain on the employee’s file. 3 months is a reasonable period for a 1st verbal warning to stay on file.

You may reserve the right to keep the warning on file for 6 months if the employee shows no improvement over the first three months.

This letter should also confirm that if there is no improvement, you reserve your right to escalate the disciplinary procedure which may ultimately lead to dismissal.

Your verbal warning procedure

With the above in mind, it’s a good idea to have a thorough disciplinary policy in place and to follow a consistent verbal warning procedure in your business.

It, hopefully, won’t be a regular occurrence for you to deal with. But good policies and procedures are vital to help you manage conduct or performance issues.

So to sum up, you can use the following steps to form the basis of the first stage of your disciplinary procedure:

  • Invite the employee to a meeting to establish the facts and let them know they have the right to be accompanied by a colleague or trade union representative.
  • Ensure the employee has an opportunity to explain their side of the story.
  • If you are satisfied that disciplinary action is necessary, issue a letter confirming that you are issuing verbal warning — do note, this isn’t a written warning. It’s just to indicate the employee has received a verbal warning. It’s important to have this on record, should disciplinary procedures need to go further.
  • Include details of how the employee can improve their performance or conduct—and why it’s important for the safe and productive operation of your business.
  • Provide them with a plan that provides clears steps showing how they can improve their performance or conduct.
  • Offer additional support if you think it’ll help, such as coaching or training.
  • Establish the date by which you expect to see an improvement.
  • Advise the employee that if there is no improvement, you reserve your right to escalate the disciplinary procedure which may ultimately lead to dismissal.

How many verbal warnings are there before a written warning?

A typical disciplinary process escalates as follows:

- Verbal warning.
- First written warning.
- Second written warning (optional).
- Final written warning.
- Dismissal or action short of dismissal.

If there’s no genuine improvement after working through a disciplinary process with an employee and you have complied with the terms of your disciplinary procedures, you can consider dismissal or action short of dismissal.

If you don’t follow a fair disciplinary process before dismissing an employee, the former member of staff may make a claim against you for unfair dismissal.

That can result in a WRC claim so, you must be able to show that your disciplinary process complies with the principles of natural justice and fair procedures.

Get HR support with verbal warnings from a Peninsula expert

It’s vital that you have written disciplinary procedures in place to ensure you know how to issue verbal warnings in a fair and consistent manner.

If your disciplinary process is fair and transparent, all your staff will know that they will be treated fairly whenever workplace issues arise.

We can help with your disciplinary procedure, including all steps from oral to written warnings. Speak to an expert today on 1800 719 223.

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