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WARNING LETTERS - WHAT TO DO

So you just got a nasty warning letter from your new boss. She has listed a series of complaints about your performance and ended the letter by indicating that failure to improve may lead to disciplinary action including termination. Most of the allegations are untrue or unfounded.
 
What do you do? Do you keep your head down and hope this bully moves on to her next target or do you draft a memo refuting her criticisms.
 
I spend a lot of time talking these situations through with clients and trying to help them decide which of these two options is best for them. Ultimately, only the client can decide. They are the ones that spend their days in the work environment and know the devil with whom they are dealing.
It is, unfortunately, common for a long time employee to get a new boss that suddenly decides the last ten years of positive performance appraisals were not deserved. Sometimes these criticisms are well-founded. Sometimes, however, one gets the sense that the newly promoted boss is trying to prove their management savvy by showing how quickly and effectively they can get out the broom and start cleaning up the department.
 
If you are not in a union, there is nothing any lawyer can do to stop an employer from terminating you. They do not need a good reason or any reason. If there is not just cause, you will be entitled to reasonable based on your age, seniority and level of responsibility. If there is just cause, like you've killed somebody, stolen something or engaged in some sort of willful misconduct, the employer owes you nothing.
 
If you are not a long term employee, the reasonable notice to which you are entitled is not going to be that significant and your primary objective will be maintaining your employment, not positioning yourself to receive a severance package if you are terminated. After all, a job is always better than a lawsuit.
 
Sometimes the new boss is fairly communicative and can discuss with you their issues and concerns. If they are able to do that in a constructive way, things usually don't devolve into a situation where a warning letter is being issued. Many people, however, can't stand conflict. They are quite capable of creating an abrupt letter but are not so good at sitting you down and looking you in the eye. They are the eternal "paper tiger".
 
Sometimes these newly promoted bosses who are trying to demonstrate their housecleaning skills choose what they perceive to be the weakest target. If they think you will roll over and start scurrying around the office like a frightened mouse, they will use their paper tiger technique on you. For these bosses, creating a very professional and objective response letter may be just the ticket.
 
You should deal with each of their criticisms and politely but firmly disagree with any factual or subjective allegations. Most importantly, where there is some truth to the criticisms, you should accept responsibility and articulate your intention to do everything you can to improve in these areas.
 
If you write a letter that makes you look like somebody who thinks they are perfect and has no room for improvement, you lose.
 
With some paper tiger bosses, getting this response memo, which you will ask them to put in your file along with the original warning letter, will make them back off. If you have persuasively challenged some of their allegations, they will think twice before they sit down at their keyboard to fire off the next missive. They may look for somebody else who they think is an easier target for their new management skills.
 
On the other hand, and this is where the employee's intuition about their boss comes in, this may be exactly the wrong thing to do. Challenging some bosses may make them escalate the conflict and look for more reasons to criticize you. They have to win! The best response with this kind of personality can sometimes be to just keep your head down and wait for them to find a new target.
Often people consult me because they are afraid that if they do not write a responding memo and they are ultimately terminated, the employer will not have to pay them anything. Unless the employee is doing something quite drastic and willful, that is seldom the case. Writing a rebuttal letter will rarely matter when it comes to whether or not an employee is entitled to severance pay.
Employers and employees should refrain from engaging in a battle of words unless it is necessary or constructive.
 
One of the fruits of the email era is that it is sometimes too easy to start clicking away at the keyboard before you think about what you are saying and whether it will makes things worse or better.
 
They used to call discretion being able to hold your tongue. Being discrete and professional in the workplace, these days, is more appropriately called learning to hold your fingers. Sometimes it is just better to not click 'send'.
 
As published in The Hamilton Spectator, June 17, 2006.
Ed Canning
Ed Canning
P: 905.572.5809
ecanning@rossmcbride.com