Can I still give my employees a verbal warning?
When I began working in HR well over a decade ago, it was relatively commonplace to give employees verbal warnings as part of the disciplinary process. They were often used for managing issues such as persistent lateness, and would sometimes be described as giving a “shot across the bows” in the hope of bringing employees into line.
However, the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures no longer recommends issuing verbal warnings, and personally, I think this change makes the process much clearer for employees. As verbal warnings were still an outcome of the formal disciplinary process, they had to be recorded in writing, which included writing a confirmation letter to the employee. I once wrote to an employee after a disciplinary hearing advising them that they had been issued with a verbal warning, and they knocked on my office door the next day insisting that it must be a written warning if it was in writing. Whilst I assured them that it definitely was only verbal, I could very much see their point!
Instead of verbal warnings, the ACAS Code recommends that performance issues should be resolved informally where possible, although the formal disciplinary process should be used if informal resolution has not been possible, or if the issue is too serious. If the disciplinary process is used, the warning sanctions that employers can issue are first written warnings (which typically remain live for six months), and final written warnings (typically live for a year). For an employer dealing with the persistent lateness issue mentioned above, this actually streamlines the process, as fewer warnings need to be given before making a decision to dismiss, if it unfortunately comes to that.
However, ideally such an issue can be resolved without the need to issue any warnings at all. By informally discussing the matter with the employee, hopefully a solution can be found – sometimes a chat about the cause of the problem can help identify a solution. The classic example of this is the parent who cannot leave their children in the playground too early because of school rules, and so a small change to their working hours (starting and finishing 15 minutes later) resolves the issue. Informal discussions can be evidenced with simple file notes and/or emails, which can then be considered in a future disciplinary meeting should that become necessary.
There is, however, a circumstance when you might find it appropriate to give a verbal warning. If you have an internal disciplinary policy, and this still includes verbal warnings, an employee may argue that a first written warning is too harsh a sanction, given you could choose to give a lesser sanction (i.e. a verbal warning). This is particularly relevant if you have made your disciplinary procedure part of your employment contracts (rather than a non-contractual policy, which is what we at Quay HR much prefer), as a contractual procedure cannot be altered without consulting with employees. However, if you are in this situation and you find yourself in an employment tribunal, you may then need to justify why your internal policies don’t correspond with the ACAS Code. It is much easier to sort out your documents before you are dealing with a disciplinary matter, rather than waiting until you have a problem
So if you are have recently issued a verbal warning, or still have verbal warnings in your disciplinary procedure, don’t panic – but it probably is time for a review.
This guest blog is written by Shelley Poole, HR Consultant with Quay HR Solutions. To find out more about Quay HR’s services, which include a wide range of options for HR support, please visit qhrs.net or contact Shelley on firstname.lastname@example.org.
The ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures is available on the ACAS website here: http://www.acas.org.uk/media/pdf/f/m/Acas-Code-of-Practice-1-on-disciplinary-and-grievance-procedures.pdf.