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How to Write Up an Employee

Jane Genova

Writing up an employee is a form of discipline that serves as a clear message that an employee's behavior or conduct is unacceptable.

Ideally, your staff is always professional and never acts in a way that requires they be reprimanded. However, that isn't always the case for business owners.

Some forms of behavior require immediate termination, while other types of behavior require that a less-drastic measure be taken. It's in these situations that a formal, yet less harsh, response is required. This is commonly called "writing up" an employee. As a business owner, it is important to know when to use this form of discipline and exactly how to do so.

What is an employee write-up?

Writing up an employee is a type of discipline. It serves as a formal notice that an employee's behavior is unacceptable and needs to improve or additional, more significant, consequences, may follow. A write-up is a formal letter that spells out what the infraction was, how the behavior must change and what you, the employer, will do if it doesn't. It is one step in the employee disciplinary process.

Ronna DeLoe, an attorney with LegalZoom, said a write-up serves to both document employee conduct and establish an improvement plan. An employee write-up can include detailed documentation, including written witness statements. If the disciplined employee files a lawsuit for unjust termination, having documentation, i.e., the write-up, can be a key part of your defense.

However, if you feel that the behavior or issue isn't a firable offense, you can include in the write-up a plan for improvement by the employee, including what they need to do to keep their job. The write-up can also specify a deadline for the desired performance you want from the employee.

What to include in an employee write-up

There is not a standard form or template mandated by the federal government or state authorities. It is up to each business to create its own employee write-up form. However, it should contain the following elements:

  • Name of the company

  • Name and position of the employee who is the subject of the write-up

  • A description of the conduct, such as tardiness

  • Documentation of the conduct (include dates, time of day, written statements from witnesses)

  • A plan for improvement, with a deadline specified

  • The consequences for the employee if there is no improvement

  • Signatures of the manager and employee (You may want to include a clause that by signing the write-up, the employee acknowledges receipt of the write-up, not that they agree with its contents)

Examples of write-up forms

To help you create your employee write-up form, you can find several templates online that you can customize to suit your business. Here are four templates you can use as a jumping-off point:

When and when not to issue an employee write-up

An employee write-up should be one of many tools in your human resources toolbox. Typically, a write-up is issued for:

  • Chronic absenteeism and tardiness

  • Insubordination, such as not following rules or exhibiting disrespectful behavior

  • Excessive time spent on personal matters (e.g., personal phone calls, social media use during work hours)

  • Failure to meet productivity quotas

Certain behaviors fall outside the bounds of an employee write-up. For example, incompetence should not be addressed through a write-up; instead, it is best handled in your annual or semiannual performance review of the employee. In addition, the below actions represent conduct that would warrant immediate termination:

  • Embezzlement
  • Violence or threats of violence (including fights with co-workers)
  • Theft of trade secrets
  • Sexual harassment

How to fill out a write-up

While it isn't as serious as a termination letter, an employee write-up form still has consequences for employees and employers if it is not completely filled out or if the proper procedures aren't followed.

Here are eight steps you should follow when writing up an employee:  

  1. Have a clear objective of what you hope to achieve by issuing a write-up. If it is to increase the productivity of the employee, focus on that in both the documentation and the improvement plan. If you include several issues with the write-up, it can overwhelm the employee, and it could be interpreted as a form of harassment.

  2. Briefly describe the conduct that triggered the write-up and why that behavior or action is detrimental to the business.

  3. Document the conduct. Include dates and times of each violation. Specify the number, dates and times any oral warnings given and the names of the manager who issued them.

  4. Explain in detail how the employee's conduct violated company policy, as stated in the employee handbook. Include any written witness statements of any third parties involved.

  5. Establish a plan to improve performance. Include specific targets or metrics for improved behavior or conduct and indicate resources that will be made available to help them meet those objectives.

  6. Include a signature line for both you and the employee. There is, however, no law requiring the employee to sign the form.

  7. Provide a copy of the write-up to the employee and retain a copy in their personnel record.

  8. Follow up with the employee to ensure compliance with the improvement plan. If the employee isn't abiding to the plan, you could issue another write-up, or other options you might consider are suspension or termination.

Do not discuss the matter with employees who aren't involved in the situation. Employee discipline should always be held in strict confidence between those in the HR department, the employee and their manager.

How to present a write-up to the employee

An employee write-up should be presented in person, followed by an in-person conversation with the employee about your concerns. Because of the legalities involved, another person should be present, as a witness.

Ensure that the tone of the meeting is one that communicates the objective is to help the employee.

After the conversation, give the write-up to the employee so they can review it. Ask whether they have any questions. If they do, provide clear answers. Before ending the meeting, ask the employee to sign the form.  

Frequently asked questions about writing up employees

How do you document disrespect?

There are two ways to document disrespect. One is to cite details of behavior, not their attitude. For example, note that the employee remained on a personal phone call during a meeting. Be specific about the dates and times of these incidents. The second way is to include witness statements documenting other employee behavior, such as if the individual raised their voice.

Does a write-up become part of the employee's permanent record?

That is up to management. An incentive for improvement could be that the write-up will be removed from the worker's file after six months of successful performance.

If the same issue comes up in many write-ups for different employees, should the company review its policies concerning that kind of behavior?

Yes. The content of write-ups can serve as a diagnostic tool for identifying common problems. If there a company is plagued by the same problem, it can be a clear sign for a new policy on certain types of behavior.

Are employee write-ups invalidated after a company revises its employee handbook?

Most employee handbooks carry the disclaimer that the company reserves the right to change policies at any time. This ensures that any employee discipline remains intact.

Image Credit: fizkes / Getty Images
Jane Genova
business.com Contributing Writer
Jane Genova grew up on the pre-gentrified mean streets of Jersey City, New Jersey. Her sanctuary was a fascination with language, especially how people spoke. She went on to earn an MA/Ph.D. Candidacy in linguistics at the University of Michigan, teach as an adjunct professor, write curriculum for English as a Second Language, and wear many hats in the front lines of communications: journalist, syndicated legal blogger, ghostwriter, scriptwriter and digital marketing content-provider. Pro-bono, she provides job-search guidance to the unemployed over-50.