How to Write Up an Employee in 8 Easy Steps

Writing up an employee isn’t something anyone looks forward to–or anyone’s first choice. Often, written warnings are a sign that early disciplinary processes have come and gone, and that an employee is headed down a route for termination. By this point, you’ve likely put in a lot of time and effort to help them change–with little or no improvement.

Escalating things “officially” may feel intimidating, but it’s also an opportunity. A written warning creates a paper trail and provides employees with a formal structure for getting things back on track. Follow these eight easy steps to make sure you get it right.

1.  Don’t do it when you’re angry

It may be odd to start out with a “don’t”, but this step is by far the most important. Don’t work on an employee write-up when you’re already angry or stressed about the situation. You need to be able to document things objectively (which we’ll get into next), and that can be hard when you’re emotionally involved.

You’ve likely already gone through a verbal disciplinary process and maybe given feedback several times, in multiple ways. You may be ready to let employees know just how badly they’ve screwed up. As tempting as it is, don’t.

It’s important to keep your cool in any employee disciplinary situation, but even more so when it comes to written documentation. A formal employee write-up will go in their employee record, which you shouldn’t assume no one else will never see it. In the case of a wrongful termination lawsuit, you need to share any documentation you have about an employee’s performance, and you want things to stay business, not personal.

A formal employee write-up is also a form of progressive discipline meant to help correct employee’s behavior in a tangible way, not be a written tirade against them. If it’s not a piece of helpful information for them or is just you letting off steam, it’s not appropriate to include. If an employee does something wrong and it’s to write them up, take a day, get some space, and come into it clear-headed.

2. Document the problem

Now, onto the do’s. Documentation is important for evaluating employee performance–good or bad–and managers should get comfortable documenting all types of employee interactions. Having solid documentation can protect you by:

  • Providing a paper trail in the case of an employee lawsuit, even in at-will states.
  • Supporting the decisions behind every employee action you take–including why some employees are promoted and others are fired, as well as who receives a raise and why.
  • Giving a concrete timeline of employee behavior and progressive disciplinary action.

When you’re ready (and calm), start your employee write-up with documentation explaining the problem with their performance:

  • Address your write-up to the employee and provide a record of their behavior up to this point.
  • Use specific examples with times and dates.
  • Above all else, stick to the facts. Stay objective, and only speak to what happened and when.

In an employee write-up, make sure you’re not adding your own spin or making employees feel like you’re fulfilling a personal vendetta. Don’t say: “Tom is a procrastinator and lazy.” Say: “Tom has shown up late for his shift three times” and include which shifts those were, with the exact clock-in times.

3. Use company policies to back you up

Ever heard someone say that the reason they were fired is because their manager simply didn’t like them? While employees may say it’s bias or draw their own conclusions for a poor performance review, a manager’s goal should be to come across as the complete opposite.

It’s not that employees can’t hold up to an arbitrary standard. It’s that they’re not upholding the company policies they agreed to when they were hired. So after you’ve walked through what’s wrong with an employee’s performance, the next step is to explain your reasoning and tie their actions back to company policies and expectations for their role. Here are a few common scenarios:

  • An employee is constantly late to work: refer to your attendance policy which mandates that employees can only be tardy twice before disciplinary action is taken.
  • Dress code violations: include that company policy says employees must always be in their expected uniform while on the clock.
  • An employee continues to use social media during work hours: cite your cell phone usage rule and that employees shouldn’t be using social media or personal devices while on the clock.

When it comes to progressive discipline, a write-up is a to explain why the documented behavior isn’t up to standard and how employees are expected to improve. If your employees signed an employee handbook or attendance policy when they were hired, now’s a good time to include that as well.

4. Include any relevant witness statements

If the performance issue at stake was raised by another team member, involves multiple employees, or your employee works closely with another supervisor or shift manager between you, include their statement in your write-up. Keep in mind any of these statements may be relevant later in the case of a legal claim. So it’s important for witness statements to follow the same guidelines as good documentation:

  • All witness statements should be factual observations, not subjective opinions.
  • Witness statements should help build a credible case of ongoing behavior leading to the employee write-up.
  • Witness statements should include any efforts or disciplinary measures by other supervisors to correct behavior along the way.

5. Set expectations for improvement

After you’ve detailed where your employee’s performance needs to improve and why, it’s time to set guidelines for how you expect them to correct it. It’s not helpful to simply lay out what employees have done wrong. In fact, the Harvard Business Review reports that more employees would rather receive corrective feedback from their boss than praise and that 72% of employees believe their performance would improve if they received corrective feedback.

Corrective feedback is honest, focuses on the issue (not the person), and includes steps for improvement. So set your employees up for what will come next once they’ve received their write-up. Include the corrective action needed and what the outcome will be if they improve, or if things get worse. If the employee doesn’t improve and the next step after the write-up is termination, make it clear so that they’re prepared for exactly what’s on the line.

6. Deliver the news in person (and proof of receipt) 

Once you’ve finished the disciplinary write-up, schedule a meeting with your employee and walk through it together in person. Bring a witness along to confirm that the meeting happened and that your employee was made aware of concerns with their job performance. Then it’s time for the conversation to begin:

  • Share your concerns and take employees through each example of poor performance. If your employee asks for proof or argues that a certain issue did or didn’t occur, use your documentation.
  • Point back to your company policies. Every employee read and agreed to the policies when they were hired.
  • Explain what happens next and which steps you expect them to take in response to the write-up.
  • At the end, have your employee sign the write-up confirming that they’ve received and read it.

Your employee may not take the news well. They may refuse to sign the write-up. If you’re worried that might be the case, the Society for Human Resource Management suggests leaving space on the write-up for employees to add their own comments and signed response, or allowing employees to submit a written rebuttal with their signature, which you can then attach to their disciplinary write-up.

7. Keep a copy for your records

Once your employee has signed the write-up, give them a copy and keep one for your own records. Add it to their employee file so that you have a record and proof that they received the write-up.

If any type of wrongful termination or discrimination suit arises, you’ll have the backup you need. The documentation will show that you handled the process correctly and your employee was informed every step of the way.

8. Follow up

The disciplinary process doesn’t end after you write up an employee. Finally, be sure to follow up based on the schedule you outlined in the disciplinary notice. See if your employee’s performance improves and if they hold to the changes expected in their write-up. If not, you’ve already laid out the steps for what comes next.

If your employee does improve, consider continuing the probationary period past their write-up date. Trust takes time to build back, and they won’t become employee of the month overnight. It took time for things to get to disciplinary notice stage, and it’ll take time to get them back.

An employee write-up isn’t a magic answer to disciplinary problems. Sometimes it takes a formal notice to give an employee the wake up call they need to change their behavior. If they do improve, give them more responsibility and see if they continue rising to the challenge.

How to Write Up an Employee in 8 Easy Steps