What You Need to Know — And Do — If You Received a Warning at Work

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When you receive a warning at work – whether it’s a verbal or written — you should take it very seriously. A warning is a sign that your supervisor is deeply displeased with your work (or, sometimes, your attitude).

Typically, warnings ratchet up. First, your boss may informally tell you that there’s a problem. The next step is either a verbal or written warning, both of which are documented. This is a more formal action, and can involve human resources. If the behavior is not addressed, termination of employment is typically the next step after verbal and/or written warnings.

Here’s what you need to know about what it means to receive a warning at work, and how to respond when you receive one, whether it’s verbal or written.

What It Means to Get a Warning

Many people work under “at-will employment,” which means they’re free to resign at any point. It also means the company can also terminate employment for any reason. Still, even when companies have the freedom to terminate an employee without providing a reason, few opt to do so. For one thing, companies can potentially open themselves up to a lawsuit if an employee believes there was discrimination behind the termination. And, perhaps just as importantly, morale throughout a company can suffer if people are let go for no reason.

Instead, most companies have a policy in place to govern how poor behavior or work will be dealt with. Often, this is referred to as progressive discipline – the idea is that warnings will escalate from a conversation to verbal or written warnings. For both verbal and written warnings, there is typically a formal meeting and written documentation that is added to your employee folder. Often, both your supervisor and human resources will attend.

Warnings are serious business, not to be mistaken with being chewed out by your supervisor. You can think of a warning as an early step in the termination process.

If you receive a warning, does it mean you will be fired or let go? Not necessarily. It’s possible you will change your behavior or work in a way that satisfies your manager. Still, it is a very serious action for your manager to take, and one that shows deep dissatisfaction with your performance. Even if you are resolved to rectify any errors and stay with the company, it may be wise to consider updating your resume and LinkedIn and preparing for a job search.

How to Respond to a Warning

Receiving a warning can feel surprising, devastating, and often unfair. How should you respond? There is no one correct answer, of course, but here are some guidelines to follow:

Stay calm: During the meeting to discuss your warning, and afterwards, do your very best to avoid crying, raising your voice, or showing extreme distress. This may, of course, be easier said than done.

Take notes: It can help that first goal — keeping calm — to take notes during any meeting about the warning. Also, this will help you remember precisely what was said. Important points to get down are why you are receiving the warning and what actions you can take going forward to rectify the situation.

Make your case: Do you disagree with your warning? If you feel comfortable doing so, you can speak up during the meeting to make your case and defend yourself. This is a tricky situation — you want to defend yourself, but not seem defensive. That’s not easy!

Avoid getting personal or comparing yourself to other employees in heated tones, which can seem childish.

Do defend yourself on the spot if you feel comfortable doing so, but know you can also remain quiet in the moment and give yourself time to assemble your thoughts and respond later.

Ask what you can do differently: Before you leave the meeting or sign any acknowledgment of a warning, you’ll want to be sure you understand a) precisely what you did wrong, and b) the correct behavior going forward. Sometimes this can be very straight-forward.

For instance, if you are receiving a warning for being late to work 10 times in a one-month period, and your boss says you cannot be late for the next four weeks. Other times, a warning may be about something a bit more nebulous. For example, you may be faulted for having a “bad attitude” or “not being engaged with a project.” In those situations, you’ll want to make sure that a plan is clearly laid out for what would constitute improving in those areas.

Follow up with a written rebuttal: Do you feel your warning is unmerited? As well as making a case in your meeting, you can also write a written rebuttal letter. In your letter, you should make a case to defend yourself. For instance, if you were late to work, but you’d requested and received permission to do so, print out those emails from your supervisor. Again, for less clear-cut infractions, defending yourself is trickier.

Take some time to reflect: It’s only human to respond to criticism by defending yourself. But do take some time to think about the facts and comments in the warning. Are any of them justified? Consider what you could possibly do differently.

Try to figure out if the warning is the last step, or a turnaround point: Sometimes warnings are issued as a way for the employer to protect themselves from a lawsuit prior to a termination. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, your supervisor or human resources department genuinely believe the situation can be fixed. Do your best to figure out the spirit in which your warning was given.

Follow up with your manager: During meetings with your manager, ask for feedback. This will help give you a sense of your next steps. Ideally, you'll have concrete goals or steps to improve your work/behavior.

Start a job search: Finally, it’s wise to start making moves to kick off your job search. Again, a warning does not necessarily mean you will be terminated. But it is a possibility. Consider networking, reaching out to former co-workers to see if they know of any job openings, updating your resume, and applying to jobs.