Where employee misconduct is not serious and does not warrant dismissal, an employer may decide instead to give an employee a warning.

The purpose of a warning

Warnings can be a useful tool for employers when managing performance or taking disciplinary action. They can be written or verbal, but we recommend that all warnings are recorded in writing so that there are no misunderstandings.

A warning lets an employee know that their conduct or performance is not satisfactory. It is important that a warning is clear enough that the employee knows that if they repeat the behaviour, or their performance does not improve, then their ongoing employment is at risk. 

The warning should:

  • make it clear that it is a warning
  • say what will happen if the change or improvement does not take place
  • be communicated clearly
  • be understood by the employee
  • be reasonable (in proportion with the action)
  • give a reasonable time to improve, if it relates to performance.

and workplace policies will sometimes specify the process for issuing warnings and what type of warnings (written or verbal) are needed. 

A final warning should be in writing unless there is a different process set out in the employment agreement.

Prior warnings

If an employee has already had a prior warning, the employer may be able to:

  • dismiss the employee, or
  • give a further or final warning.

A prior warning or warnings do not always justify dismissal or a final warning. For example:

  • a warning for one type of misconduct cannot be relied on when dealing with another type of misconduct
  • if a warning is too old, it may be unfair for an employer to rely on it.


Expired warnings

Warnings will expire after a period of time. Warnings should state how long they are for — for example, 6 months or 1 year. Even if a time period is not stated, after a certain time the employer may not be able to rely on it as a basis for future action. 

Each case will depend on its own facts. There is a general rule that it may be challenging for an employer to rely on a warning that is more than 12 months old.

Depending on the facts, an employer may be able to take a recently-lapsed final warning, or an expired warning, into account if it is not the only factor being considered.

Unrelated warnings

Generally, a warning issued for 1 instance of unsatisfactory performance or behaviour cannot be relied on to support disciplinary action that relates to another warning.

In some cases, the employer may refer to an unrelated warning if the action by the employee is similar to something that resulted in a previous warning/s. 

However, care should be taken, and if any past warning or warnings are referred to, the employee should be given the opportunity to respond.

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