Late Friday, I dashed off a short post about a reprimand that the Social Security Administration gave an employee for excessive flatulence. Yes, my sense of humor is that sophisticated.

But that got me thinking about written warnings generally. Here’s what I recommend:


  • Be accurate – It’s important to describe precisely how the employee is not meeting the company’s expectations. But the details need to be accurate. If they aren’t, it undermines the action taken and makes the employer look sloppy, at best.
  • Be fair – There may be 100 different ways that an employee can challenge a termination decision. But from a jury’s perspective, it all comes down to whether the decision was fair. If the people drafting write ups think that their role is to advocate for the employer, they’re more likely to exaggerate or leave out facts that support the employee’s position. An employee who can show that the write up presents a biased version of the facts has taken a big step towards convincing a jury that he or she was being set up to fail.
  • Be consistent – Have other employees engaged in similar behaviors? If so, how were they treated? If employees who’ve engaged in the same behavior are being treated differently, you better have a solid explanation. Otherwise, it’s called direct evidence of discrimination.
  • Include the employee’s version – If there’s a dispute about what happened, make sure that you’ve gotten the employee’s side of the story and that it’s included in the write up. If nothing else, give the employee space to write out how and why they disagree.
  • Don’t discuss health issuesThere is a time and place to explore whether an employee requires accommodation for a disability or whether health issues are affecting an employee’s performance. It is not in a disciplinary write up. Blurring the distinction enables employees to portray themselves as victims of disability discrimination. If I had to guess, I’d say that’s why the SSA rescinded its write up in my prior post.
  • Have the employee sign – Without that signature, the likelihood of the employee denying receiving the feedback skyrockets. They don’t need to say they agree with the decision, just that the information was provided to them. If they want a copy, give it to them. You have nothing to hide. (And in California, they’re entitled.)
  • Don’t lose your copy — Seriously, don’t.

Done correctly, written corrective action provides employees with clear feedback on the company’s expectations and creates a record that they’ve been given a chance to improve. Done incorrectly, however, write ups can devastate an employer’s case.