It's a fact of life that everyone has a bad day now and then as a result of frustration, impatience, confusion or feelings of being taken for granted. When those emotions spill over into the workplace, however, and result in hostile outbursts, sarcasm or sabotaging of projects, they can't be ignored by management. A formal letter of reprimand that identifies the act(s) of insubordination, as well as the consequences of those actions, not only gives the employee a chance to improve her behaviour but also establishes a legal record in case further disciplinary steps need to be taken.
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Verify that the act(s) of insubordination occurred and that the employee was aware of the consequences of unacceptable behaviour, whether directed toward supervisors or coworkers. In order to pursue disciplinary action, the behaviour needs to have been experienced or personally observed by you or witnessed by others whose testimony would be considered reliable. To strengthen a case, there should be a pre-existing contract or employee manual defining appropriate conduct in the workplace and written acknowledgment of the employee's awareness of this policy. (See Tips.)
Assemble your documentation, including witness statements, personnel policies and a written chronology of events. Cite specific dates and times, and identify the people who were present when the incident occurred. Example: On 5/25/10, during the 10 to 11 a.m. weekly staff meeting with Dana Hall, Mark Green, Suzanne Wells and me, you repeatedly interrupted Hall's presentation and refused to provide a status update for the Levinson account on the grounds that "it's a meaningless waste of time."
Articulate the impact that the offensive behaviour has on employee morale, productivity and the company's professional image.
Identify a remedy that's reasonable and appropriate to the transgression committed. If, for example, an employee was rude to her supervisor one time, a letter of reprimand placed in her personnel folder, along with a timeline to review subsequent attitudes and behaviours, may be all that's necessary. If, however, the employee engages in verbal abuse or physical contact,and is repeatedly unable to control her temper, this may call for suspension, demotion, mandatory attendance at anger management classes, counselling or termination.
Have your HR rep or legal counsel review your letter of reprimand to ensure that the content is concise, clear and consistent and does not infringe on employee rights or violate state and federal employment laws.
Tips and warnings
- If there's nothing in writing about misconduct, an employee is likely to use the argument that he was never told that insubordination wasn't acceptable. Depending on the severity of the incident, you and your HR rep may want to meet with the employee, provide and discuss a written code of conduct, and have him sign it with the understanding that future transgressions will result in punitive action.
- Stick with straightforward and uncluttered language. Phrases such as, "With bulbous nostrils flaring and neck veins bulging to the point of bursting, Jack volcanically spewed forth a hot stream of expletives that seemed to shake the entire conference room" are better suited to your next novel than to documentation that may be used in an administrative hearing.
- Avoid the temptation to explain an employee's insubordination with references to events and relationships outside the office. Example: Jack's rude remarks to his female supervisor obviously stem from his wife's henpecking at home.
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- "Managing Workplace Negativity"; Gary Topchik; 2001
- "A Survival Guide to Managing Employees from Hell: Handling Idiots, Whiners, Slackers, and Other Workplace Demons"; Gini Graham Scott Ph.D.; 2006
- "101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline & Termination"; Paul Falcone: 2010