How to Write a Letter of Reprimand to an Erring Employee

Many people avoid change until the writing is on the wall, and sometimes, until the writing is in a letter of reprimand from a boss. Here’s how to give such a letter optimal impact.

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Is your former high flyer now slacking off and failing to hit their KPIs? Do they devote more company time to social media than to clients? Were they seen at the beach when they had called in sick? And have your verbal warnings fallen on deaf ears? It’s probably time to resort to a letter of reprimand.

Overview: What is a letter of reprimand?

A reprimand is an official warning a manager or supervisor gives a worker in a bid to change unwanted behavior, including poor conduct and performance. When a written warning is issued, it usually indicates prior verbal warnings and other informal approaches have failed to get them back on track.

A letter of reprimand aims to highlight the seriousness of the situation and spur immediate corrective action. In some cases, it’s the employee’s last chance to deliver the desired improvement before losing their job. Bosses who care about talent management and turnover rates should generally try to avoid the latter.

The following tips will help you understand when to use this measure and how to create a professional, yet effective, letter.

What goes into writing a letter of reprimand?

Reprimand. It shouldn’t just come out of the blue but be part of an established process, which in many cases is a progressive discipline policy. We’ll take a look at where an employee write-up should fit in such a plan, but first, here are some common scenarios that could require one.

1. Ways in which workers go awry

The issues that employment warning letters seek to address generally fall under one of the following categories:

  • Habitual tardiness or absenteeism
  • Misconduct
  • Underperformance
  • Other breaches of company policy

2. Examples of what’s not OK at work

Take Tina Fey’s receptionist character Shelley in The Invention of Lying, when she tells her boss (Ricky Gervais): “Every day I realize more and more how overqualified I am for this position and how incompetent you are at yours.”

She goes on to tell him that his boss is “coming by within the hour to see if he can work up the courage to fire you. If he can't, he said he'll definitely do it tomorrow,” and she has no messages for him because “I told everybody you were getting fired this week and not to expect their calls returned.”

This is the kind of behavior you would file under misconduct and probably more specifically as insubordination – meaning instances where employees show defiance, disobedience, or disrespect to higher-ups, such as managers or business owners.

An insubordination write-up is one of the tools available to deal with such conduct, which can even include non-verbal mocking like eye-rolling. Misconduct more generally includes behaving antagonistically toward coworkers, insulting customers, and breaching confidentiality.

As for underperformance, nearly all companies have some employees who are failing to meet deadlines or targets or to fulfill their duties and responsibilities. Even GitLab, which prides itself on the effort it puts into hiring, expects “above 5% of our team members to experience explicit performance management on an annual basis.”

But GitLab aims to identify and act on underperformance fast, or “when it is easier to remediate,” and the software company uses both performance measures and metrics to do so. It shoots for a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) success rate of 50% or more, which indicates to staff “we still believe in them and want to make them successful, it isn't a one way street to job termination.”

3. Try the verbal route first, but document it

When an employee acts in a way you disapprove of, it's usually best to try a verbal warning first. This means you can discuss the issue and how to address it without formally reprimanding them, and it gives them a chance to change before things escalate.

Although you’re taking a more informal tack, it’s still prudent to record all pertinent data related to the incident (or incidents) in a verbal warning form. This can be important later to reveal an employee’s pattern of behavior and show that you made a good-faith effort to lead them down the right path before moving on to more serious measures.

4. Repeat offenders usually need a written reprimand

A written reprimand is often the next step in a progressive discipline policy. Usually, the impetus moving the pro­cess to the next stage is a repeated violation of the same rule or type of rule (for example, repeated tardiness or unexcused absence) within a certain period of time. There must be a link between events.

However, it may be best to have another conversation with the employee before preparing the warning letter. Talking with them could give you insight into why the problem persists.

5. Be consistent

When considering whether or not to issue a written warning, also check if you will be acting consistently. Did you provide the same discipline (or leniency) to other employees engaging in similar conduct? If not, you could be seen as unfair and expose yourself to discrimination claims.

Also, be wary when it comes to your highly valuable top performers. Turning a blind eye to their breaches tells other employees that management plays favorites and company rules can be broken.

6. When it’s better to just say goodbye

Remember the boss that Tina Fey’s character in the movie said was trying to work up the courage to fire Ricky Gervais’s character? Don’t be like him. If the circumstances are serious enough to warrant it, you may need to terminate a worker’s employment or contract immediately, with no prior warning. Don’t use a letter of reprimand to buy yourself time to build up the courage.

How do you know when it’s time to write a letter of reprimand?

Let’s start with how you know when it’s not time to write a letter of reprimand. That’s if you’re feeling furious or vindictive, acting on impulse, or in the immediate aftermath of an incident. In such cases, the experts recommend taking time out to cool down first. As one of Céline Dion’s hit songs advises, things are getting serious, so think twice before you roll those dice.

That said, the discipline process should kick in reasonably soon after an incident. Undue delays could be interpreted as condoning the behavior and make it difficult to justify a future termination of employment. Timely warnings show that the concerns are legitimate and not a pretext for alleged discrimination or retaliation.

So, when is it time to write a formal letter of reprimand? If there are new or ongoing deficiencies in a worker’s conduct and/or performance despite prior verbal and/or informal cautions, and the person has already had a fair chance to improve. If a follow-up date was set at your last meeting, administer the written reprimand immediately following it if the required change has not been noted.

How to write a letter of reprimand

Clear, bare, and fair — that’s how the letter should be. Stick to the facts. No nitpicking, no hearsay, no heavy-handed tactics, and no threats. The idea is to get the worker to lift their game, so they need to know in plain English what they did wrong, how and why to do it right, and what may happen if they don’t.

Avoid a litigious lilt in favor of a pragmatic approach. Yes, the letter could be a step toward dismissal, but it’s in everyone’s best interests if it instead provokes positive change. That’s it in a nutshell. Now, here are the details.

1. Explore the legal landscape

Before you go too far, get advice on what employment and other laws you may need to comply with. If your company has any relevant policy or handbook, follow the steps in it.

If you’re a sole proprietor or an SMB and have no established policy or in-house experts to loop in, consider outside advice from a lawyer, an industrial relations consultant, or a human resources expert. Business associations and government bodies could also be good resources.

2. Keep the message objective but your tone human

There is no magic formula for either the content or tone of a written warning – you’ll need to adapt it to the gravity and specifics of the situation. But no matter how bad the worker has been, show some heart. You want to sound serious but convey you’re looking for a way forward, not a way out.

Even though they may be considered a problem employee, deal with them with professionalism and tact, not like a parent scolding a child. Focus on future improvement but be direct since cushioning the blow could cause ambiguity.

3. Start with the standard details

This includes the date of the letter’s issue, the name and title of the employee, and yours (or another appropriate company representative). Although we don’t recommend you state this literally, from there on the letter should be designed to say: “Dear employee, This is your wake-up call.”

4. Clearly state the problem

Some suggest starting with the positive aspects of the employee’s performance and conduct since you’re not dismissing them but asking them to improve. But early on, you must cut to the chase and spell out the reason for the letter of reprimand. Include specific examples and dates the incident(s) occurred.

Provide a description of the misconduct you personally observed or complaints received by management, coworkers, or customers. For example, tell the employee the date and time you observed rude comments made to a customer and an accurate description of what was said.

You should also explain why this is a problem — for example, perhaps it breaches a particular law, code of conduct, term in an employment contract, or company policy as set out in the employee handbook.

Specify the policy violation rather than making generalized statements, such as the employee was harassing other staff. And to give the letter extra weight, clearly describe both the issue and its impact on the company with facts, such as project delays, item refunds, or customer complaints. You should also note any previous warnings that were issued, whether verbally or in writing, and the changes in behavior that were expected.

5. Say what the employee must do to improve and by when

Give clear instructions on what and how the employee is expected to change. For example, explain that commencing immediately, they will treat all customers with respect. If they are repeatedly late, say they’ll have to start arriving on time. This may sound obvious, but you need to be specific so there’s no confusion.

Consider providing a set of guidelines so the person can self-evaluate and avoid future recurrences of the issue. Include a reasonable deadline by which the changes or improvements must occur.

6. Also say what the employer will do

The letter should also specify what the employer will do to assist — for example, provide anger management training. If it says a supervisor will hold weekly follow-up meetings to monitor an employee's progress, make sure those meetings take place and are documented.

7. Describe what will happen if the situation doesn't change

The consequences of any further incidents must be clearly explained in the written reprimand. But be flexible with your statements and consider phrases like, “Failure to improve may lead to additional disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.” This will leave you with more options if the problem recurs.

Should the letter say the worker will be let go the next time they engage in a particular form of misconduct, this should occur unless extraordinary circumstances dictate otherwise.

8. Include signature lines for you and the employee

The best practice is not just to meet with the worker privately (in person or virtually) to give them the letter but to let the employee know the purpose of the meeting in advance so they can adequately prepare. Offer them the option of bringing a support person with them.

Note that while you will ask the employee to sign and date the letter of reprimand, this is to confirm they have received, read, discussed, and understood the warning, not that they agree with it. If they choose not to sign, make a note to that effect on the letter. Then, place the letter in their personnel file and give them a copy.

You should also separately record details, such as the meeting time, date, who was there, what was said, etc. HR software can make it easier to document such things, as well as to manage each step in the disciplinary process.

9. What to avoid

  • Emotional or editorial comments, inflammatory language, and rambling off a litany of the person's failures.
  • Making “legal conclusions,” such as harassment, discrimination, or retaliation — they run the risk of being interpreted as admissions of liability by the company.
  • Making interaction with the employee overly litigious — your goal should be for the working relationship to both endure and thrive.
  • Attaching supporting documents — it usually comes across as overkill.

10. Finally, put yourself in your employee’s shoes

Read the letter and ask yourself if it would inspire you to be a bitter or better worker.

Example letter of reprimand

Here is a simple template that will guide you in drafting a letter of reprimand.

An example of how to structure a letter of reprimand.

You can use the above example to help you draft a letter of reprimand. Source:

This sample letter of reprimand also comes with a helpful checklist to make sure you have gone through all the necessary performance management steps before issuing such a letter.

A checklist detailing actions a supervisor must take before issuing a letter of reprimand.

Employers must take a series of actions before issuing a letter of reprimand. Source:

Letters of reprimand are a necessary tool

Managers and business owners rarely enjoy administering them, but tackling problems head-on is much better than allowing them to fester, and warning letters are sometimes simply the best tool for the job. There are no shortcuts in discipline, but investing in an employee’s improvement is usually much more rewarding than starting the hiring process anew.

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