The Appropriate Way to Write a Letter of Reprimand to an Employee

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Yauhen ZarembaDirector of Demand Generation at PandaDoc

Friday, September 16, 2022

If you manage or supervise a team, you must learn the appropriate way to write a letter of reprimand. Then, when the day comes, you will be well prepared to achieve positive outcomes for both the employee and your company.

Article 8 Minutes
The Appropriate Way to Write a Letter of Reprimand to an Employee

A letter of reprimand is an official warning that you send to an employee when you are unhappy with their workplace conduct.

In this article, we will outline a step-by-step guide for writing letters of reprimand, as well as tips for ensuring their effectiveness. We will also cover how this should form part of your company’s overall disciplinary policy.

When should you write a letter of reprimand?

A letter of reprimand occupies a unique space in a manager’s disciplinary arsenal.

It signals to your employee that you expect them to change their unwanted habits while falling short of sanctioning their pay, position or responsibilities. Failure to adhere to the letter would invite more serious action against the erring employee.

In this way, you can think of it as an official first warning. That then raises the question – when should you be giving the first warning to your employees?

Common reasons for giving reprimand

1. Habitual absenteeism/tardiness

Employees regularly showing up late to work or calling in sick is a common cause of grief for management staff. While every company has a different standard for what’s considered ‘acceptable’, it’s easy to spot the outliers in your ranks.

Rather than letting it become a bigger problem, you can nip your employee’s bad habits in the bud with a simple letter of reprimand.

2. Low performance

Similarly, it’s easy to spot an underperforming employee. Failing to meet deadlines or completing work to a below-expected level can have a knock-on effect on company operations.

This can be especially disappointing when it comes from a talented employee. However, a warning letter will usually convince them to reflect on and change their ways.

3. Inappropriate behavior

Everyone has the right to feel safe and comfortable in their work environment. Unfortunately, the actions of an individual can upend this culture if not quickly rectified.

That can include anything from cases of bullying or harassment, to misuse of the company’s Twitter for Professionals account.

Depending on the severity of the misconduct, a letter of reprimand may serve as an appropriate first course of action to discourage unwanted behavior. You might use this warning alongside other actions such as separating belligerent employees.

4. Breaches of policy or protocol

Workplaces normally have company policies that highlight expected standards among employees. These policies run concurrently with the law, e.g. regulations on data protection or health and safety.

In the absence of an indemnity plan for your company, you might be liable for damages sustained as a result of an employee’s breach of policy. This makes breach of policy an important area to clamp down on. You can learn more through this free indemnification agreement template.

What’s certain is that rules are only effective as long as they are being enforced by management. So, if an employee repeatedly disregards your authority on company policy, a warning letter would be appropriate.

How this fits into your wider discipline policy

Despite being the ‘official first warning’, a letter of reprimand is by no means the first instance that you would speak to an employee about a problem at work.

Before sending a formal letter, you should have informal conversations with staff members when you spot the early warning signs of unwanted behavior. Most employees will get the message and be nudged in the correct direction before an official letter is needed.

A letter of reprimand also serves the purpose of documenting your attempt to manage the employee. So, if you should need to take further disciplinary action, it proves that you at least gave them a chance to reform their actions.

How to write a letter of reprimand

As with any disciplinary proceeding, you must follow a consistent approach in how you speak to your employees. With that in mind, there are several steps that you will want to follow to ensure a professional standard.

Explain the purpose

Clarity is an important concept in employer-to-employee communication.

That principle extends to instances of disciplinary action. It’s vital that you clearly state the purpose of the letter if you are to fairly assess the response. Likewise, employees must understand what they have been told if they are to have any chance of remedying the problem.

Even if you may personally feel bad for spelling out unfortunate news to your employee, you shouldn’t let this water down your language. Writing a half-baked letter will confuse and potentially even antagonize the recipient.

For these reasons, you should open by explicitly stating that it is a letter of reprimand.

Cite company policy

After that, you should include a reference to the specific provision of company policy that has been breached. This will remind the recipient of the obligations they signed up to in their employment contract, as well as the severity of the infringement.

Give examples of the unwanted behavior

Writing a letter of reprimand requires you to provide examples of unwanted conduct to substantiate your claims. It is equally important that you are accurate in the timeline of events and given descriptions. Failure to do so will only invite argument and discontent.

For starters, you should keep a register of all employee incidents and the date that they occurred. Then, should you need to write a letter of reprimand, you may refer to those incidents with evidential certainty. This method will also allow you to make an informed judgment about how harsh your response should be.

Highlight the employee’s positive attributes

While the purpose of a letter of reprimand is to express disappointment, you should also give the recipient something to feel happy about. After all, you must remember that you’re giving the employee a second chance. It’s because you clearly see the value in their skillset, and don’t want to jump headfirst into harsher punishment.

As such, you should offer words of encouragement in your letter. Make sure to acknowledge examples of previous good behavior e.g. work completed to a high standard, attendance records, KPI data, anecdotal compliments, etc.

By doing this, you’re reassuring the employee that you recognize and value their capabilities. Moreover, giving specific examples will shoehorn the employee into repeating those positive actions.

Emphasize the consequences

No one likes threatening consequences, but it’s necessary if your words are to have any effect.

In this part of the letter, you should outline the process should the employee continue their current behavior. This could be what will happen after a second infringement or a date by which you expect to see change.

Make sure that you are clear in what is expected of the employee so they know exactly what needs rectifying. Where the return of company property is required, you might find the PandaDoc debt settlement agreement template to be a useful tool.

Focus on the future

When concluding your letter, you should offer conciliatory words to the recipient.

You should establish that while you are displeased with the employee’s actions, you’re also prepared to leave this chapter behind you. Make it clear that it’s in both of your interests to move on as professionals and that it won’t harm their future career with your company.

Essentially, you want to offer them an ‘easy way out’. This will hopefully avoid any future grievances by maintaining a positive relationship.

Sign the letter

Ending the letter with your signature maintains the professional expectation that you have toward your staff. You should also include the date and time to conclude the chronology of events.

You may request that the recipient also signs the letter to signal their agreement. This formality will strengthen your bargaining position should the employee refuse to change their unwanted habits.

3 tips for effective delivery + outcomes

Write with authority

A letter of reprimand should be read as a firm warning. Your employees have obligations to the company which can result in termination if not upheld.

Your disciplinary process must not devolve into a petty argument. Stand your ground and be clear on what the expectations and consequences are. Give the employee every opportunity to change but certainly don’t give into their demands by bending the rules.

Ask for acknowledgment

Employee discipline is about evaluating the pattern of behavior on a chronological timescale. It’s particularly important to compare how the recipient acts after they have read their letter of reprimand.

As such, you should ask for a simple acknowledgment once they have received it, which you should record alongside other relevant material. Make sure to include your HR’s digital business card within the copy of the letter so it’s easy for the employee to find the correct contact details.

You may consider turning on read receipts on your email/communications platform. This means that you can see the exact time the reprimanded employee read the message, instead of just their time of reply.

Schedule a follow-up meeting

Finally, you should pencil in a date for when you will catch up with the employee. This should serve as a date by which you expect to see a significant change in their work habits.

Give enough time for the employee to onboard your advice and prepare for the meeting. When it comes to talking with them, spare the time to hear their side and thoughts. This will contribute to a positive, healthy working relationship.

Final thoughts

By now you should have a good idea of what makes an appropriate letter of reprimand. What you should recognize is that employee discipline is a process that takes place over many conversations, meetings and emails.

Consequently, you should be regularly speaking to your employees about the many things discussed today. Feel free to integrate your company principles into policy documents and your branding plan template. If you manage this effectively, then letters of reprimand will hopefully become a rarity.

Yauhen Zaremba

Director of Demand Generation at PandaDoc

Yauhen is the Director of Demand Generation at PandaDoc, all-in-one document management tool for almost all types of document including the PandaDoc rental lease agreement template. He’s been a marketer for 10+ years, and for the last five years, he’s been entirely focused on the electronic signature, proposal, and document management markets. Yauhen has experience speaking at niche conferences where he enjoys sharing his expertise with other curious marketers. And in his spare time, he is an avid fisherman and takes nearly 20 fishing trips every year.

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