A written reprimand generally is part of a progressive discipline policy. It is one of the final corrective steps supervisors use before they consider employee suspension or termination. For an employee, it serves as a warning to improve her performance or workplace behavior or jeopardize losing her job. The use and purpose of written reprimands, either alone or as part of a progressive disciplinary policy, must be communicated clearly to employees.


An employee's performance that is failing to meet company standards would constitute a written reprimand.

Written reprimands are one element of an organization's disciplinary process within its performance management system. A performance management system consists of performance standards, disciplinary procedures, commendations, productivity metrics, attendance records and performance evaluations. Performance management systems typically have several goals: They measure, sustain and improve employees' job performance, provide constructive feedback and facilitate goal-setting.

Detailing Workplace Policies

If your organization has a dedicated human resources department, its employee handbook contains specific workplace policies and guidelines. Small businesses without an HR department may have something less formal than an employee handbook, such as a brief description of workplace policies during new-employee orientation or training.

Regardless of the method for communicating the company's policies, it is reasonable for employers to expect compliance with company rules. For workplace policies to be useful, they must include consequences for noncompliance, such as disciplinary action.

Use of Progressive Discipline

Many employers have what is referred to as a progressive discipline policy — each time an employee is counseled or reprimanded for the same action, the discipline becomes more severe. For example, the first time an employee is late to work, the supervisor may overlook it. However, if an employee is repeatedly late to work, his supervisor might informally counsel him about the importance of punctuality.

If the employee's tardiness persists, the supervisor may issue a disciplinary warning — either verbal or in the form of a letter to the employee to improve performance — cautioning the employee that repeated violations of the attendance policy could result in more serious disciplinary action. The final steps for correcting persistent tardiness might include one or two additional written reprimands, suspension and then termination for the employee's failure to comply.

Using a Written Reprimand

A written reprimand typically is a serious disciplinary action the employee's supervisor delivers during a private conference, although a reprimand for egregious actions may be given during a disciplinary conference with a manager present as a witness.

Four elements constitute a written reprimand:

  1. Description of the employee's actions.
  2. Statement about the workplace policy supporting the reprimand.
  3. Previous incidents and warnings for the same actions.
  4. Consequences for repeated noncompliance or failure to improve.

A supervisor should never just hand an employee a written reprimand without explaining its purpose and the consequences for noncompliance. He should review the employee's actions, provide the employee with a copy of the reprimand and inform him that a copy will go into his personnel file. The supervisor also should give the employee a time frame for reviewing his progress for improvement. If the company has an appeals process, the supervisor should explain how the employee can dispute the written reprimand.

Consistent Policy Application

Consistently applied policies are critical for a disciplinary process and written reprimands to be effective in reducing performance and attendance issues. Employees in one department should not be subject to more written reprimands than employees in another department. A written reprimand must also be consistent regarding its content and the subsequent actions.

A small workforce lends itself to being a less structured work environment where supervisors or managers may be lenient, so small business owners should be particularly focused on consistent application of workplace policies and disciplinary action.