What to Do When You Have Been Given a Warning at Work

bunch of warning signs

A warning at your workplace is a red flag and you should tread carefully. Getting a verbal or written warning often indicates that your employer is dissatisfied with your performance, attitude, or actions. Rather than getting defensive, it’s better to understand the reasons why your employer chose to issue a warning to you. And also, to understand why they might be considering to replace you.

Oftentimes, a critical review by your employer is the first step before a warning is issued. Your manager may express dissatisfaction at your job and guide you to do better. In cases where you refuse to make needed adjustments to the complaints, a warning may be issued to you. A warning in the workplace is your employer saying “get your act together, and fast.”

Understanding how to act in the case of a warning in the workplace is an advantage to any employee. If you have ever wondered the best way to act when issued a warning at work, keep reading to figure out what to do. These tips will help you navigate the perilous rope of being a possible candidate for termination.

In this article, we will also answer some of the most searched questions about warnings at work. For instance, does an employer have to provide you with three warnings prior to dismissing you? Do warnings have to include certain details? And do warnings have to be provided in writing? Read on to discover the answer to these questions. We also provide a comprehensive list of some of the signs that you have received an inadequate warning from your employer.

Warning at the workplace: An employee’s red flag

Getting a warning at work is every employee’s nightmare. It can rattle your confidence and if not handled carefully, can create a feeling of self-doubt that destroys your performance. Employers are always looking for optimum performance in the workplace. They want employees that are skilled, well-behaved, and flexible to fit into the work environment. When these conditions are not met by an employee, they can resort to issuing them with a warning. This can be communicated verbally, explaining to them what exactly is wrong and giving them clues on how they can fix it. They can also resort to written warnings when such employees neglect the verbal warnings.

Given a warning at work

Why you could get a warning at work

We know how much you loathe the idea of getting either a verbal or written warning at work. So to help you avoid getting a warning, we have prepared a list of what could get you on your employer’s wrong side. You could get a warning for one or more of these reasons below:

  • You seem not to have any idea about your job description. You were hired for a reason, not living up to your employer’s expectations can get you a warning.
  • You are always making mistakes in your work or presentation.
  • You are slow in picking up relevant tips related to your job. This is especially true in on-hand jobs that require speed.
  • You are rebellious, always conflicting with either your peers or superiors.
  • You have a poor relationship with your colleagues, and cannot be a team player.
  • You are always late and absent from your workplace without cause.
  • You do not follow the prescribed rules for dressing in your workplace.
  • You are guilty or alleged to have bullied or harassed your coworker.
  • You misuse the company’s property like using the office laptop to handle personal emails.
  • You disrespect the customer while at work. This puts the company in a bad light and can earn you a serious warning.
  • You are not resourceful as you don’t contribute to the vision, goals, and objectives of the company.

Handling a warning in your workplace

Nobody enjoys being called out for underperformance or a troubling attitude. It can be both demoralising and hurtful. Learning how to accept the learning curve that comes with warnings can help you not only to retain your job. But also, it can help ensure that you won’t have another warning awaiting you in the future. And it can help you become a better employee, which in turn can open up opportunities for promotion.

Here are our top tips on what to do when you have been issued a warning at work:

  1. Don’t be defensive

The first thing you may want to do is go on the defensive and argue with your manager over their judgment. While this is a natural reaction, it is however the wrong thing to do. You need to understand that your employer has served you a warning for a reason. Whatever your reason for being defensive, it is important to take a step back and rationally assess the situation. Honestly review yourself and take a moment to consider if you are truly guilty of what your employer is claiming. Admitting to your mistakes or requesting a short time to retrospect shows you are willing to learn and highlights you as a responsible employee.

  1. Stay calm and rational

It won’t do you any good if you become too emotional and begin to take out your frustrations on your employer. Remember, verbally or even physically abusing your manager is never going to end well, and will likely get you dismissed on the spot. Breathe in and out, calmly think about the issues addressed in your warning and logically consider them. When you are certain you have the right things to say, go on and speak to your employer without hostility and present your side of the story. The more calm and professional you are, the better your message will be received.

  1. Seek clarification and feedback

Once you have received a warning, it is important to seek clarification from your employer regarding their expectations and concerns. Ask for specific examples or incidents that led to the warning, and seek feedback on how you can improve. This shows your willingness to understand and address the issues at hand.

  1. Maintain open communication

Establishing open communication with your employer is crucial during this time. Schedule regular check-ins to discuss your progress and address any concerns or questions. By actively engaging in dialogue, you can demonstrate your commitment to improvement and create a supportive environment for resolving issues constructively.

  1. Have an improvement plan in place

After a moment of self-reflection, you may likely discover that your employer is right in their assessment of your performance. The best way to handle this is to have an improvement plan that will correct the anomalies indicated in your warning. If it is an issue of low performance, you may decide to upskill or take a course on your area of weakness. If it is owing to lateness or absenteeism, you can change it.

6. Develop a proactive mindset

While you can’t change the fact that you received a warning, you can control the way you respond to it. Think of your warning as an opportunity not only to address where you have gone wrong. But also, to improve beyond that and become a more effective employee. Instead of dwelling on the negative aspects of the warning, use it as an opportunity for personal growth and development. Adopt a proactive mindset by identifying areas where you can enhance your skills, knowledge or work habits. Take the initiative to seek additional training or resources that can help you excel in your role.

7. Monitor your progress and document achievements

Keep track of your progress and achievements after receiving a warning. Document any improvements you have made, milestones you have reached or positive feedback you have received from colleagues or customers. This documentation can serve as evidence of your efforts and progress, which may be valuable in future performance evaluations or discussions.

8. Learn from the experience

Regardless of the outcome, view the warning as a learning experience. Reflect on the lessons you have gained from the situation and use them to enhance your professional skills and behaviours. Embrace the opportunity for personal growth and strive to become a better employee in the long run.

9. Start dusting off your resume

While a warning may not necessarily mean a possible dismissal, it can hint that your employer is critically examining you and can replace you soon. Rather than face unemployment, start speaking to close friends and family about job opportunities. Update your resume and be on the lookout for jobs that match your skills. This will help you stay calm as you will know that there are other opportunities elsewhere. One of those opportunities may even lead to acquiring an even better job.

10. Speak to the experts

If you believe that your warning is an indicator of a possible dismissal and you believe it is unfair, it’s safe to speak to someone who understands such issues in the workplace and can help you navigate it successfully. A Whole New Approach (AWNA) is a great place to start. With our team of seasoned experts dedicated to helping employees find the best solutions to their workplace issues, you will receive the right guidance on how best to proceed. If the warning borders on bullying, harassment, or hints at a possible unfair dismissal, then you need to act quickly.

Do I need to receive 3 warnings before being dismissed?

warning process as an employee

There is a belief among many Australian workers that an employer must provide you with three warnings prior to being dismissed. That is, if they are being warned about poor performance or misbehaving. This belief is however nothing but a myth. The Fair Work Act 2009 does not require employers to issue a certain number of warnings to an employee prior to their dismissal.

To determine if an employee was provided with an appropriate number of warnings, the Fair Work Commission will take into account the specific facts of the case. There is therefore no hard and fast rule as to how many warnings an employee should receive. The Fair Work Commission will take into account, for example, the severity of the issue. And if the employer took reasonable action in providing a warning or multiple warnings. The Fair Work Commission will also consider if the employer allowed the employee sufficient time to improve.

In some cases, the employee’s award, registered agreement or employment contract may stipulate the number and type of warnings they must receive prior to being dismissed. This stipulation could also be constrained in the employer’s workplace policy. Make sure you have a read over your employment contract or any other relevant document so that you know what is expected when it comes to warnings.

What does a warning have to include?

While there is no requirement for a minimum number of warnings, Fair Work Commission rulings on unfair dismissal cases tell us a few things. Firstly, that an employee will generally need to be warned about their poor performance. And secondly, that they must be provided with a reasonable opportunity to improve their performance prior to being dismissed. The employee must also be informed that a failure to improve their performance could lead to disciplinary action or place their job at risk.

One unfair dismissal case where the Fair Work Commission emphasised what a warning must contain is McCallum v Everstone Pty Ltd [2022].

Worker dismissed for poor performance, but did not receive adequate warnings

The employee in this case had lodged an unfair dismissal claim with the Fair Work Commission. She argued that she had not been provided with an adequate warning that her work performance could have placed her job at risk.

In July 2021, the employee was terminated by the employer Everstone due to various performance-related issues. Everstone stated that the employee had a negative attitude and was impolite to customers, resulting in numerous complaints. The company had also taken issue with the employee’s inability to touch-type and multitask, often refusing to answer phone calls while processing orders. Lastly, she failed to comply with her supervisor’s instructions.

However, the employee argued before the Fair Work Commission that Everstone had not addressed any of these performance concerns prior to her dismissal. According to her, the company simply stated to her that her dismissal was simply a business decision and that nothing was wrong. She also disputed the accuracy of the performance issues raised by Everstone. She claimed that she had only on one occasion been advised to improve her interactions with clients.

Fair Work Commission rules worker was unfairly dismissed, outlines details required in warnings

The Fair Work Commission’s ruling on the unfair dismissal claim highlighted the lack of procedural fairness afforded to the employee. Everstone had failed to provide a proper warning regarding her unsatisfactory performance before terminating her employment. The Fair Work Commission then emphasised the obligations of employers when issuing warnings to employees. These obligations are contained in section 387(e) of the Fair Work Act 2009. When delivering a warning to an employee, the employer must clearly outline:

  • The specific areas in which the employee’s performance is inadequate.
  • The support or training available to help the employee improve.
  • The expected standards of performance.
  • A reasonable timeframe for the employee to make the necessary improvements and meet the standards.

The Fair Work Commission determined that Everstone had only given the employee a general reminder and subtle hints, rather than a formal warning. Moreover, the company had not clearly communicated the specific performance deficiencies to the employee or informed her that her job was at risk, nor did they provide guidance on how to improve her performance.

As a result of the harsh and unfair dismissal, the Fair Work Commission ordered Everstone to compensate the employee with a sum of $7,484.17.

Does my employer need to provide warnings in writing?

The Fair Work Act does not require that a warning for poor performance must be provided in writing. As we explained earlier, the appropriateness of warnings will depend on a number of different factors. In the past, we have seen the Fair Work Commission uphold dismissals where the employee did not receive a formal written warning.

Workplace harassment can lead to general protections claim, What to Do When You Have Been Given a Warning at Work, given a warning letter

Worker dismissed after receiving a series of informal warnings

One such example of this is the unfair dismissal case Thapaliya v Caddle Investments Pty Ltd T/A Edenwood Automotive [2021]. In this case, the Fair Work Commission had to determine if multiple informal warnings given to a worker amounted to adequate notification of their dismissal due to poor performance.

The employee, a mechanic, had been working for Edenwood Automotive for eight months prior to his dismissal in March 2021. He was responsible for working on light vehicles. He would need to complete the necessary repairs, test drive the vehicles, sign off on job cards, and leave the vehicles for customer payment and collection.

However, six months into the job, the mechanic caused serious concerns for Edenwood Automotive regarding the quality of his work. He received a number of customer complaints regarding vehicles he had repaired. This in turn caused additional work to be performed at Edenwood Automotive’s expense.

Mechanic is informally warned about quality of work, then dismissed

The mechanic was frequently engaged in discussions by two managers, who offered suggestions on how to complete mechanical tasks up to standard. And he also received multiple informal warnings. These were documented as corrective actions in non-conformance reports.

Despite the warnings, the mechanic continued to receive an increasing amount of customer complaints. Due to his shoddy workmanship, re-work had to be performed on twelve vehicles between July 2020 and March 2021. So bad was the mechanic’s workmanship that on one occasion, the head mechanic had to use the handbrake to stop a vehicle the mechanic had prepared for customer collection because the brakes were not functioning.

With customer complaints mounting up, the mechanic was dismissed in March 2021. This was because he had failed to demonstrate improvement despite numerous warnings and opportunities to rectify his performance. The mechanic subsequently lodged an unfair dismissal claim with the Fair Work Commission.

Fair Work Commission rules that there was a valid reason for dismissal

The mechanic argued to the Fair Work Commission that his dismissal was unfair for two reasons. Firstly, because he was never informed about his subpar workmanship or customer complaints. And secondly, because he had not received any counselling or warnings to improve his work performance.

Edenwood Automotive denied the mechanic’s claims. The company asserted to the Fair Work Commission that not only had his performance been unsatisfactory. But also, that the mechanic had been engaged in discussions regarding his workmanship on multiple occasions. And that in these discussions, he had been provided with informal warnings about his work performance.

The Fair Work Commission accepted that there had been numerous customer complaints made about the mechanic’s poor workmanship. It considered these failures, especially in handling car brakes, as essential responsibilities and competencies expected from a qualified mechanic. The Fair Work Commission also recognised that the increasing number of complaints made about the mechanic indicated that he had failed to improve his work performance, despite continuous instruction and guidance.

The Fair Work Commission therefore ruled that these performance deficiencies provided a valid reason for the mechanic’s dismissal.

Were the informal warnings sufficient? The Fair Work Commission makes its decision.

Next, the Fair Work Commission had to answer the question of whether the mechanic had been adequately warned about his unsatisfactory performance prior to his dismissal. To do this, the Fair Work Commission assessed the effectiveness of the informal warnings through non-conformance reports.

Based on this evidence, the Fair Work Commission concluded that Edenwood Automotive had not provided formal warnings to the mechanic regarding his performance. Had the company done so, these formal warnings would have highlighted the potential disciplinary consequences of the mechanic’s ongoing failures.

However, the Fair Work Commission also found that Edenwood Automotive consistently addressed the mechanic’s performance issues throughout his time at the company. And he had been provided with ample opportunities to respond to and rectify his poor performance.

The Fair Work Commission determined that Edenwood Automotive had provided the mechanic with “instructions, retraining, counselling, and warnings whenever concerns arose.” This included:

  • Retraining the mechanic on the brake machine on multiple occasions.
  • Providing written instructions to the mechanic regarding proper vehicle care.
  • Counselling the mechanic on brake pad replacement, documented in non-conformance reports requiring corrective action.
  • Issuing warnings to the mechanic regarding inadequate transmission oil filling and incorrect brake repairs, recorded in non-conformance reports requiring corrective action.

Ultimately, the Fair Work Commission’s decision in this unfair dismissal case hinged on two factors. Firstly, that Edenwood Automotive had failed to provide formal warnings to the mechanic. And secondly, the mechanic’s “collective performance failures and their continuing nature notwithstanding instruction, retraining, counselling, and warning.” In the end, the Fair Work Commission ruled that the second factor outweighed the first, and therefore, the mechanic had not been unfairly dismissed.

lodge an unfair dismissal claim if you have been wrongfully terminated from employment

Signs you’ve received an inadequate warning from your boss

As we’ve outlined in this article, while there is no requirement for employers to provide a certain number of warnings. Or to necessarily deliver warnings to you in writing, they must outline certain details.

So, how can you tell if you have received an inadequate warning? Or perhaps even one that is motivated by sinister intentions? Here are a few signs:

  • Your warning was vague and lacking in specifics about how you are underperforming.
  • Your warning lacked any details about what you need to do to improve your performance. And it did not outline the standard expected by your employer.
  • Your employer did not mention how it will support you to improve your performance. It failed to provide any information about training or any other measures to help you improve.
  • Your employer gave you an unreasonably short time to improve following your warning.
  • Your employer did not provide you with any indication of whether you may face disciplinary action or be dismissed if you don’t improve your performance.
  • Your warning includes details of underperformance issues that are exaggerated or not true.
  • Other employees with similar performance or behaviour issues have not received warnings or have received less severe consequences. This may indicate a lack of fairness or bias in the warning process.
  • Your warning contains personal attacks, discriminatory language or references to protected characteristics such as race, gender, religion or disability. This may suggest a hidden agenda or violation of anti-discrimination laws. A warning should focus on performance-related concerns and not target an individual’s personal attributes.
  • You are not provided with the opportunity to share your perspective or provide input on the concerns raised. Open communication and a two-way dialogue are essential for resolving issues and achieving mutual understanding.

I’ve been unfairly dismissed after receiving a warning: What should I do?

If you believe you have been unfairly dismissed after receiving a warning. Or if you were dismissed for poor performance, but your employer did not adequately warn you, you can take action through the Fair Work Commission by making an unfair dismissal claim.

But remember, you need to act fast. You must lodge your unfair dismissal claim within 21 days of your dismissal. By taking action through the Fair Work Commission, you can possibly be reinstated to your role. Or you may be awarded financial compensation.

To make an unfair dismissal claim, you must meet the Fair Work Commission’s eligibility criteria. We at A Whole New Approach can help you determine if you are eligible to make a claim. And if you are, we can provide the expert guidance you need to make your claim a success.

We operate in every Australian state and territory and have helped workers take action through the Fair Work Commission for over twenty years. With our representation, you can significantly maximise your chances of contesting your dismissal.

Wrapping up

Getting a warning at work may make you go all defensive and feel a little underappreciated. You might say “that’s not me!,” “my boss is impossible to please” and other defensive lines that cloud your thinking. Having a level-headed picture of why you are being warned in the first place can help you know how to act. Employers expect the best from employees and monitor their performance to ensure they are delivering. Rather than think you are the victim of a witch hunt, think of receiving a warning as a learning curve and re-strategise.

If you receive a warning due to an alleged case of bullying or harassment, you may need to speak to a representative that can properly guide you through the process. You don’t want to get tied up in the complications and unintentionally get yourself in deeper shit.

Are you worried about a warning at work? Is your warning prompted by an alleged case of bullying or harassment? Do you think your employer may dismiss you unfairly after such a warning? Don’t fret, we can help you through all of this.

We are Australia’s leading workplace mediators, having helped over 16,000 workers take action through the Fair Work Commission. When you choose A Whole New Approach, you can take advantage of our no win, no fee service.

Speak to us today at 1300 766 700 and enjoy a free private consultation with one of our agents.