Writing a Disciplinary Letter

Writing a Disciplinary Letter

Hagel, Dave

Well written disciplinary letters can be effective tools for managing performance. However, the problem is that many are poorly written and fail to deal with the problem head-on. They only serve to complicate matters by causing a communication breakdown, leaving the employee confused as to what action they should take to correct the behavior or the problem.

A well written disciplinary letter needs to clear, concise, simple and highly structured.

A good disciplinary letter will have four distinct components: a header, an opening, the body and a close.

The Header is located at the top of the letter and should contain the following information:

* Return address or Company logo.

* Date – Put down the full date: day, month and year. The date should be the day on which the letter is shared with the employee, rather than the day on which the incident occurred.

* Employee’s name and address.

* Attention line – Address the letter to the employee not the file.

* Salutation – With the salutation “Dear”, you speak directly to the employee.

* Subject line – This line quickly informs the employee of the topic covered in the letter. Subject lines often begins with “Re:”, the Latin phrase meaning in the matter of or concerning. For example: “Re: Letter of Warning” or “Re: Unpaid Disciplinary Suspension of Employment”.

The Opening should be limited to one or two sentences and is designed to advise the employee of the purpose of the letter. For example: “/ am writing this letter to you as a result of an incident in which you were involved on November 17th, 2003.” or “On December 9th, 2003, you were suspended without pay pending investigation into an incident in which you were involved. We have now completed that investigation. Here are our findings.”

The Body describes the inappropriate behavior or action. Be sure to use specific facts – e.g. times, dates, names, places, events, etc. – and clear, concise language that is easily understood by the employee. Avoid subjective statements and discriminatory remarks. Do not exaggerate events or reactions and use behavioral descriptions wherever possible.

Here are some other tips to follow when writing the body:

* Provide background information about the incident. When did it happen? Where did it occur? What happened?

* Describe previous discussions or warnings, if any.

* Describe the negative impact the employee’s actions or behavior has on:

* productivity or work processes;

* other employees;

* customers – internal and external;

* the department, location and/or Company.

* Indicate that the employee’s behavior is unacceptable.

* Your letter could also outline specific plans as to how the employee will improve his or her performance. These should include:

* measurable, tangible improvement goals;

* training or special direction to be provided, if any

* Make a sincere offer to help the employee improve his job conduct or skills.

In The Close, state the nature of the disciplinary action – e.g. written warning, suspension or termination. If you are issuing a letter of suspension, be sure to include:

* Whether the suspension is paid or unpaid;

* The exact days the employee is to be removed from the workplace;

* The date and time the employee is to report back to work;

* To whom the employee is to report to upon returning to work.

Indicate the consequences of repeat offenses. For example:

“I must inform you that if you are involved in any further incidents of a similar nature or in any misconduct of any nature, disciplinary action up to and including discharge from employment will result. Govern yourself accordingly. ”

“An immediate and sustained improvement in your performance is required. Your failure to do so will leave me with no alternative but to take further disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment. ”

Conclude the letter by including a closing line – e.g. “Yours truly” – then your signature, name and job title. You may also need to include a list of persons who need to be copied on the letter.

I recommend that you don’t include a section on the letter that requires an employee signature. The employee is going to receive the letter whether or not he or she plans to sign it. Receipt of the letter is not negotiable. If the employee does not agree with the letter, there are other avenues available to challenge it. The requirement of an employee signature will often inject more tension and defensiveness into an already difficult situation.

Follow these tips and you’ll write a solid disciplinary letter that will make you look more professional and help you withstand the scrutiny of a third party like the Ministry of Labour, the Courts, a lawyer or the Union, if you have one.

Dave Hagel is a Certified Human Resources Professional and President of High Performance Human Resources, a company that specializes in providing human resources services to small to medium sized entrepreneurs. You can reach him at dave@highperformancehr.ca or phone, toll-free 1.866.878.4134.

Dave Hagel

Certified Human Resources Professional and President of High Performance Human Resources


Copyright Canadian Institute of Management Winter 2006

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