In Labour Compass no 4 I dealt with the issue of Dismissal and aspects of what makes a dismissal a fair dismissal. One of the legs of a fair dismissal is procedural fairness. Written warnings are generally considered to form part of the procedural aspect of a dismissal. In this edition I will focus on some important aspects of written warnings.

1. Content of a written warning:

  1. Any written warning should contain the employee's name and surname to identify that the warning has been issued to the employee concerned.

  2. The written warning should also be dated to indicate on which date the warning was issued to the employee. This is important when one considers whether warnings have expired and whether further offences of a similar nature are committed within the period that the warning was valid.

  3. The reason for the warning should be clearly stated. Try to avoid vague descriptions of the offence such a poor time keeping or negligence. State clearly the nature of the offence eg. Poor time keeping in that you have failed to clock in for duty on a specific date or negligence in that you broke a router or lost the company's fuel card.

  4. You should indicate what action has been taken and what rectifying action the employee should take in the future. By this you would record that the employee has been shown the correct procedures to follow, or was reminded of the company rules, the consequences of the offence on workflow or production, seriousness of the offence was explained, the consequences to the employee should the he commit a similar offence in the future, etc.

  5. The expiry date of the warning should be clearly noted. Warnings do expire and are usually only valid for specific periods of time. It is generally accepted that a verbal or first warning is valid for 3 months, a second warning for 6 months and a final written warning is valid for 12 months.

  6. The employee should sign receipt of the warning. If the employee refuses to sign the warning it is not necessary to argue about this. Simply get a witness to sign that the warning was issued to the employee and that the employee refused to sign for the warning.

2. FAQ regarding warnings:

  1. What is the purpose of warnings?

    Warnings are a form of corrective and progressive disciplinary measures. The warning should highlight to the employee that he has committed an offence in terms of your disciplinary code or that he has failed to meet your standards and that he should correct his behaviour in order to comply with your disciplinary code or standards.

  2. Must an employee be issued three warnings before he may be dismissed?

    Because warnings are progressive and corrective it should follow that for minor offences an employee should be afforded a number of opportunities to comply with your rules and standards. However, for more serious offences, you may issue a more serious warning such as a final warning. The punishment should fit the crime. Your disciplinary code should guide you as to what warning should be issued, whether a verbal, first, second or final warning or in fact whether an employee should be dismissed.

  3. Must consecutive warnings always be for the same offence?

    For warnings to be consecutive, i.e. a first, second and final warning with each following from the prior warning, the warnings should be of a similar nature. In other words, warnings relating to time keeping offences would run consecutively, warnings relating to quality of work would run consecutively, etc. If an employee is on a final warning for time keeping but commits an offence relating to quality of work, then the final warning will have no bearing on the offence relating to quality of work.

  4. An employee's final warning has expired must I start the process of warning over again?

    Warnings are valid for a specific period. If the warning has expired, generally you would need to start the process again. If you notice a pattern of behaviour whereby as soon as the warning expires, the employee commits the same offence then you could take alternative steps such as extending the period of the validity of the warnings.

  5. Do expired warnings still hold value?

    There is nothing preventing you from keeping expired warnings on an employee's file to show in the event of a potential dismissal that the employee has a history of committing the same or similar offences. These may be taken into account but are given less weight than valid written warnings.

A word of warning:

Many employers make the mistake of issuing employees with two or three final written warnings for the same offence. You must only issue final written warnings when you have valid reason to do so. A final warning should be seen as very serious and the final step before dismissal. Don't issue final warnings lightly and only issue them if you are serious about potentially dismissing the employee if found guilty of a similar offence.

When you issue a final warning take the time to explain to the employee that he faces dismissal if found guilty of a similar offence within the following 12 months. Remind the employee that he may have a family to support and debts and expenses to meet. Record this information on the final warning.

If you issue a number of final warnings for the same offence, you are invalidating the seriousness of the final warning and creating uncertainty in the mind of the employee. You do so at your own peril.

It is also vitally important to be consistent in issuing warnings to different employees and to be consistent in applying your rules. Do not allow employees to constantly break your rules and then when you reach snapping point decide to take serious and drastic action without having disciplined consistently on the matter with progressive warnings.

Should you require advice, remember to call our office! I am more than happy to provide you with the good advice that you require to keep you from making costly labour mistakes.