what’s the deal with write-ups?

A reader writes:

Frequently in your questions, people will mention getting written-up as a negative consequence for something at work. This reminds me of the “this will go in your permanent record” threat from junior high and movies. Really, what is supposed to be the result of getting written up?

It’s basically a formal warning, framed in a punitive, infantilizing way.

Most employers do use formal warnings of some kind, but employers that call them “write-ups” tend to be the ones that infantilize their employees.

So let’s talk about written warnings in general, and then we’ll talk about “write-ups” specifically.

First, as a manager, there will be times when you need to issue a written warning. In general, when someone is having performance or conduct problems, you want to start with a relatively informal conversation about what’s going on, where you ask about their perspective and explain what you need them to differently. If that doesn’t work and you’re seeing a problematic pattern, then you move to a more serious conversation, where you say things like “I’m concerned that I’m still seeing this after we talked about it” and “it’s really important that you do X.” Depending on the seriousness of the issue, at that point you might document that you had that conversation. But that doesn’t need to mean issuing the employee a formal memo. You can document the conversation by writing a memo to yourself or your own manager or HR about what was covered, or you can send the person a quick email summary of the conversation, framing it as “I wanted to summarize what we talked about, so we both have it to reference.”

However, if things reach a point where they’re quite serious, where you’re considering letting the person go if changes aren’t made, it’s smart at that point to ensure they have something in writing too — which is usually thought of as a formal warning. The idea is to lay out in writing what needs to change (and ideally, by when), to make sure that the person is clear about what needs to happen and about the seriousness of the situation. (Sometimes this might be replaced by a formal, written performance improvement plan, depending on the circumstances.)

None of that is about “writing someone up.” It’s about coaching someone on how to meet the expectations of their role, explaining when that’s not happening. There’s nothing punitive about it when you get to the written warning stage — it’s about ensuring you’re communicating clearly and the employee is clear on the seriousness of the situation. It’s also about ensuring that you’ve documented the situation, because occasionally legal situations arise where you need that documentation. (For example, if someone says you fired them because of the church they attend, you need to be able to show that, no, you fired them after repeated conversations and warnings about missing deadlines.)

That’s all good management. Write-ups, on the other hand, tend to be used more often in customer service type jobs and other jobs that tend not to trust employees and don’t default to treating them as responsible adults, and they’re often used as “punishment.” Some of those employers have a system where if you get X number of write-ups over X months (or ever), you’ll be fired. And some of those companies “write people up” for relatively minor occurrences, like being slightly late.

(And to be thorough, there are also companies that operate the way I advocated above and just happen to call that written warning stage a write-up. But we’re talking here about companies that make write-ups a punitive thing, and where it gets talked about as a regular feature of working there.)

It’s notable that write-ups tend to take authority away from the manager and move it to the write-up itself. Competent managers don’t need to lean on the concept of a write-up; they know that they have the authority to have a serious conversation with you and hold you accountable, all on their own.

If you’re managing adults and treating them like responsible professionals, you shouldn’t ever need to “write someone up” or threaten to write someone up. You should just be managing — setting clear expectations, giving clear feedback, and addressing it when someone’s not meeting the bar you need.

{ 209 comments… read them below }

  1. Tigger*

    Yeah. I was written up once for wearing my thick hair in its naturally curly state up in a ponytail since “ungroomed hair is unprofessional” It was not ungroomed, it was just curly and all the women in my office complimented it. Ironically my blonde coworker showed up to work that day with bed head and yesterday’s makeup no write up for her…

      1. Tigger*

        Sadly no. My hair is a bit of a sore subject for me because I was a competitive swimmer growing up and there was only so much I can do before it got fried no matter what product I put on it. Also when I was at sleep-away camp in middle school some of my cabin mates decided to cut most of my hair off in my sleep. I was so shocked that a manager in a well-regarded company was writing me up for my hair that I put a lot of time in that I just shut down and signed anything to get away from him.

          1. Tigger*

            Yeah… My parents were not pleased AND school pictures were 2 weeks after I came home so that was fun

        1. Owler*

          My heart goes out to your middle school self. Cutting someone else’s hair is such a violation! They knew it was wrong since they were choosing to do it while you slept.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I’ve also seen this happen a lot with POC being targeted for their hair while others can show up as you described of your blonde coworker.

      Then again, I have no respect or tolerance for policing appearance in general. The letter about greasy hair earlier had my teeth on edge. It’s so petty and just unnecessary.

      1. Tigger*

        Oh yeah. One of my closest friends is mixed race (I am white- I just have a lot of Mediterranian ancestry) and I called her that night bawling my eyes out because I know she would, unfortunately, get what I was feeling.

        1. bibliovore*

          yeah, summer camp. I was 12 and my bunkmates were evil and they tortured me about my curly hair. It was the time of Farrah Fawcett hair and my wild Magenta like mane was never going to fit in with that crowd.

        2. OfOtherWorlds*

          My family is Mediterranean white as well. My sister has used chemicals or heat to straighten her hair since JR high. It’s awful for her hair, of course, but…

      2. Less Bread More Taxes*

        Being neat is different from being clean. Neat is subjective, and I agree people should leave it alone, while clean is not.

    2. LaDeeDa*

      This is a big deal when talking about rules regarding box braids and dreadlocks are a big deal. You are telling an entire race that their hair texture is unprofessional and unkept. It makes me insane. The amount of time, money, and effort, and the damage caused to African American hair to make it “acceptable” is discriminatory and exclusionary.

    3. Blipity Blop*

      Are you in New York? This is officially being put on the books as illegal in NYC! From the NYTimes today: “Under new guidelines to be released this week by the New York City Commission on Human Rights, the targeting of people based on their hair or hairstyle, at work, school or in public spaces, will now be considered racial discrimination. The change in law applies to anyone in New York City but is aimed at remedying the disparate treatment of black people; the guidelines specifically mention the right of New Yorkers to maintain their “natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.””

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          If you go there, your hair is protected, this will apply to everyone.
          My hair? So straight you could use it as a level… I dream of Merida hair.

    4. Indie*

      Ah the curly hair police. Always a fun conversation:
      “But why did you not straighten your devil curls, you deviant?”
      “Im sorry, what are we talking about?”

      1. TardyTardis*

        I remember that in JANE EYRE, someone named Julia was a devil-child because her hair was a) red and b) naturally curly. Well, Lowood was Like That.

  2. Daniel*

    My organization calls these sorts of formal warnings “counseling memos,” which I think is much better than “write-ups.”

    Every time I hear “write-up,” I’m reminded of the company that tried to “write-up” a letter writer after she submitted a resignation letter, mostly for (IIRC) just pushing back against working long hours during her notice period. As if that would do anything for anyone.

        1. Foreign Octopus*

          I love this because what would be the purpose?

          This candidate doesn’t work for you, they have nothing to do with you; at most you could probably put them on a no-interview list but a write up?

      1. Daniel*

        I can’t find it now, and I think I may have conflated a couple of letters together. However I did find one of a hiring manager who wanted to discipline a *candidate* for no-showing an interview.

      2. Pilcrow*

        I think it may have been this one? “update: since I gave notice at work, my boss has tripled my workload”

  3. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I only had one manager who used write ups as a threat or form of punishment. It was my restaurant job in high school. In that manager’s defense, I imagine managing 15-20 high schoolers isn’t ideal, but she was terrible. To this day, I have no idea if she ever actually wrote anyone up. I suspect not.

    This is the same manager who would always deliver criticism about individual actions by saying, “It’s not just you. I’m talking to everyone.” About once a week, someone would ask me, “Did manager talk to you about being late/undercooking the potatoes/messy uniform/heavy make up/long hair?” I would always say no.

    1. Software Engineer*

      I worked at McDonald’s, and write-ups were uncommon. You had to do something pretty stupid, like having a short drawer, missing scheduled shifts, or fighting with coworkers (!) to earn a write-up. The management did just what Allison said to do – talk to the problem employee, and if they didn’t shape up, fire them.

      1. tinyhipsterboy*

        My Starbucks once wrote people up because a bunch of drawers came up short. We all suspected theft–and it was later confirmed–but the manager decided that to make a paper trail he had to write everyone up, even though literally all of us but the thief were known for having only minor variances.

      2. Wired Wolf*

        I witnessed two exemplary coworkers get fired at the same time for getting into an argument/fight, and was the target of an attempted writeup for the same thing by a middle manager who tried to bait me (she didn’t like that I actually took time out from stocking to help a customer).

    2. Drago Cucina*

      I had a director once that used evaluations to force resignations. She never did any counseling. When evaluations were announced we always wondered who would be leaving.

  4. EPLawyer*

    Well heck just use a burn book. But make sure everyone initials every entry, so everyone knows every little mistake.

    (You planned these together on purpose didn’t you Alison?)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Agh, no, I didn’t! I’d actually had a different post written for this morning, then realized yesterday that I’d be doing egregious sexism things two days in a row (which I try not to do, to preserve all of our mental health), so I moved that one to Monday and moved other things around and didn’t realize the weirdness of having this come right after the burn book!

      1. LaDeeDa*

        The Burn Book comments are probably my favorite comments ever on this site. This letter and the burn book go so well together. LOL!

      2. LGC*

        I mean, it worked out beautifully (and on a Wednesday to boot!).

        For what it’s worth, I really do enjoy the more lighthearted/”absurd” letters, myself.

  5. A Nonny Mouse*

    “Some of those employers have a system where if you get X number of write-ups over X months (or ever), you’ll be fired. And some of those companies “write people up” for relatively minor occurrences, like being slightly late.”

    Yep, that’s most retail jobs for ya. I spent the last four years working a side hustle retail job, and they treated write-ups that way. Our old manager was way more relaxed about things like being three or four minutes late clocking in, or taking more than three days in a six month period out sick (although I never understood that policy anyway – who’s determining what the six month period is? Is it from January-June/July-December? Is it from the day you started until six months from that date?). She understood that sometimes, frankly, shit happens.

    They brought in a new guy right before I left, to replace her when she went to Florida, and he cracked the whip and started doing formal write-ups for stupid stuff like three or four minute late clock ins from lunch, or failing to wear the appropriate amount of makeup (we were a Fancy Makeup Store), even though the suggested amount/application in the handbook was JUST a suggestion). A week after he got there, one of the women called in sick because her daughter got pinkeye, and she’d obviously been exposed to it, so she didn’t want to come in touching all the makeup and clients. That was her fourth absence in a six month period, and he told her she would be written up. She quit over the phone without notice. So because he decided to be unreasonably punitive, he lost an employee – which, of course, is way more inconvenient than simply working with her for that time period that she was contagious.

    I myself got threatened with a write-up because I was in the hospital for a day I was scheduled – my thyroid had a lump that they wanted to ultrasound and then they took like six vials of blood and wanted me to pee in a jug for 48 hours. They told me that I shouldn’t go to work that night because I’d likely be tired from the blood draw (and I didn’t really want to lug my pee around), so I called in. That manager said, “Well, Nonny, this is your fourth absence in 6 months, so unfortunately, I’ll have to write you up for this.” The funniest part is, I was at the end of my two weeks notice.

    1. Moonshadow*

      I work in a corporation where there is a so-many write-ups and you’re fired. But a write-up is more than just a formal warning from manager to employee, it also goes to HR and the employee and manager have to sign it. I’ve been there almost a decade and have never been written up, so they must save it for very serious things.

    2. Busy*

      I worked retail part time after having my son. When the new manager started, he decided to put everyone with “write-ups” on final warning. Everyone had been written up because you would get written up for everything. It just so happened I was at a point where I was ready to go back to full time work in my field. So I found a job and let the new manager know in no uncertain terms how much of a baby-man he was; power tripping over “having control” of teenagers and poor sods making minimum wage.

    3. Sneaky Ninja for this one*

      For us, 6 months is a rolling period. So if you’re absent in once in Jan and once in May, in June you’d have a total of 2 absences. In July, you’d have 1 (from May) because Jan would have dropped off. Employees know how to play that game just right in order to not run into attendance issues. I’ve even have them ask when their absences fell off so they could stay just under the get-in-trouble mark.

      For our line of business, full staffing really does matter. We also don’t count FMLA absences (cause you can’t), and things that affect everyone (huge snow storms and the like). Also, one continuous absence is one. A week hospital stay is 1, not 7.

      1. Mary Ann*

        Yeah in retail you are always straddling the line between being reasonable about call ins and working 70 hours a week.

    4. R.D.*

      That reminds me of my first job out of college. They would write you up if you were not logged into your phone by your scheduled start time. You could not log in more than 5 minutes early or more than one minute late. So If you started at 8 am and logged in at 7:54 or 8:02 you were written up. If you had X number of write ups in Y number of months, you were terminated.

      I had a couple of write ups when I gave my notice. During my notice period I was slightly less careful… One hour into my last day, they walked me out of the building. Really?? I was amused. I mean, I was definitely more than a minute late, but it was my last day and firing me on the spot left them short staffed for the day.

      Unfortunately the job I left for was a disaster that made that place look like heaven on earth. :(

    5. tinyhipsterboy*

      Fancy Makeup Stores are some of the worst for employees, it seems like. My boyfriend worked for one (and then out of others, with his job after that), and all he saw were policies that were inconsistently applied. Sometimes it was things like the makeup you mentioned; other times it was getting mad at employees for socializing with him, despite nobody being in the store and part of his job being that he had to get to know employees; I recall once one manager tried to chastise him for sales despite him not even working for the company, to say nothing of the time they tried to force him to only come in with a clear bag to avoid theft when no other freelancer had to. Yikes.

      1. A Nonny Mouse*

        Lemme guess. Your boyfriend was either loss prevention or from a brand. Either way, that SUUUUUCKS.

    6. OhGee*

      I had a grocery store job post-grad school (I know) where I worked 6 am-2pm. I had to clock in at your department by 6 on the dot. However. The store didn’t open for customers until 8, so a keyholder would hang out near the door to let staff in. Often, around 5:57, the keyholder would wander off. My department was at the far end of the store, so even if I arrived with enough time to powerwalk across the store and clock in, I’d get stuck banging at the door to get in, and clocking in at 6:01. Automatic writeup. The job itself was fine, but the company’s policies stunk.

    7. TiredManager*

      Hmmm… I think I’m torn on this advice. I work in a union environment, and performance issues are managed according to a contract. “Writing someone up” is a required part of the progressive corrective action process.

      1. seewhatimean*

        hey well, I just got a letter from my supervisor that contravened our collective agreement, so I’m kind of salty about progressive corrective action atm. If you’re going to do them, make sure they really are to contract. In this case I pushed back with HR directly, and the letter won’t be in my file, but the level of dgaf displayed by the letter being written at all is not ok by me. :(

    8. sunshyne84*

      That’s how it was when I was at TSA. I got several write-ups for 1 minute late tardies. But that was only because I had the worst manager ever, no other manager did that. We literally had 15 minute debriefings before our shift every day. Didn’t matter if it was raining or not, he’d count you tardy. Most ridiculous thing ever and they had so many managers, they had half sitting in an office just doing attendance so they never knew exactly how late you were or even who you were, they just saw the tardies and you get in trouble for it.

  6. Rebecca*

    “Write-ups, on the other hand, tend to be used more often in customer service type jobs and other jobs that tend not to trust employees and don’t default to treating them as responsible adults.”

    Exactly. At my first job, I was written up because I wasn’t keeping up with my customer service work. Background: work was slow, so the entire CSR staff’s hours were reduced from 10 working days in a 2 week period to 5 working days so we could obtain partial unemployment. I wasn’t able to keep up with my work, advised my manager, asked for more hours, was told no, the company had to be fair to everyone and they couldn’t let me work more hours. Fast forward a few weeks, after multiple times of advising my manager I wasn’t keeping up, I got called into her office. I thought she was going to get help for me, but no – I was written up for not performing my duties fully. This silly woman actually wrote me up for not doing my job when the company was preventing me from doing it. I had to sign the form, and it went on My Permanent Record.

    I supposed it’s still in a folder somewhere, moldering away, and the company is almost out of business now, so I guess I don’t have to worry about it any longer. At the time, it was so demoralizing. I was very young, had a toddler, needed the paycheck and insurance, so I just signed the form. Now, I’d push back, showing the email backup where I asked for help, was told no, and would refuse to sign or even go along with it. And yes, I take a bit of glee when I see this company’s slow slide into oblivion since I left years ago. It wasn’t just me who was on the receiving end of their nonsense.

    1. Busy*

      Back in my late teens/early 20s when I first started working, I worked on factory floors. They were very similar to this and the previous letter from today. Every morning meeting with pointing out all the mistakes every person made. Jobs were regularly threatened during this time and throughout the shift. “Write-ups” were performed behind locked doors so no one could walk in as a potential witness … I still see some of this controlling, infantalizing, and sometimes down right creepy behavior in office staff in manufacturing. Like at my last review, my boss told me not to “upset” him again. To which I informed him it is not my job to manage his emotions. And then I went on to describe to him for the rest of the 30 minutes about how his vague “upsetness” has nothing to do with my job but the clear instructions on what he needs to see from me does – and how i expect him to stick to that – so that I understand expectations in the future.

      1. Rebecca*

        Oh yes! Back in the day, there were lead people even in the office, and they kept track of every error, no matter how minute, monitored break times, and generally made life miserable. Nothing was ever presented as “you’re doing X this way, but we really need you to do it another way, here let me show you, and do you have any questions”. And to make things worse, they’d let people make the same mistakes for weeks or months, then bring out the log. And write them up. Ugh, thinking about this again makes me hate the time I spent there!

        1. Busy*

          For the first time in the history of forever, his mouth was shut and he looked concerned. At the end, he just stumbled over telling me again not to upset him (okay poppi) and I just stood up and walked out.

          I then encouraged my coworkers to be honest with him as well, if nothing other than to get him to stop monologueing over top of you.

      2. JustaTech*

        What I want to know is how to *fix* this.
        Part of my job is figuring out how errors happen in our manufacturing process and how to prevent them happening again. Sometimes it’s things like “Person X picked up the wrong container” and a lot is lost. My response is “well, if you were paying attention you should have been able to tell those things apart, why wasn’t Person X paying attention? Should we make those things different colors?” But the manufacturing management is all “What is wrong with you, Person X?! This is going in your file!”

        It’s so infantalizing and punitive and doesn’t ever actually address the underlying problems.

    2. JediSquirrel*

      Do you HAVE to sign it? Or can you just sign it as “Benelux Cumberdoodle” since it’s likely they won’t even look at it? Are there legal ramifications here?

  7. De Minimis*

    One of my government gigs had the “Letter of Warning” which I always had trouble taking seriously because it sounded too much like a magical item from Dungeons and Dragons.

    1. Lynca*

      Please file the Letter of Warning in the File Cabinet of Secrets, next to the Bottomless Supply Room. Make sure to roll perception checks and detect magic.

      1. Jadelyn*

        If you misfile your Letter of Warning, you may find yourself represented on the Graphs of Shaming at the next staff meeting.

    2. Shorebird*

      Public positions really are notorious for this. I’m in a federal government position myself, but I’m still in the 12-month probationary period. The policy is that in your first year, you can be fired for pretty much anything without warning, as long as they document the specific issues. Until that time, the normal protections from termination don’t apply. This is because they know that once you hit that 12-month mark, firing you becomes damn near impossible (unless you fail your background check or get your security clearance denied, which is an automatic term in most cases.) If it’s truly not working out, they want to cut ties while it’s still efficient to do so.

      After 12 months, you need to be given a Notice of Opportunity to Improve (NOI.) I’m not sure at what point that progresses to the Red Stapler of Stapling.

    3. Seeking Second Childhood*

      The Master Letter is stored in a cabinet in a wooden crate in a labyrinthine warehouse alongside the Ark of the Covenant.

  8. Holly*

    I’d like to add a different perspective re: public employment – Often formal “write ups” are often negotiated by unions in the collective bargaining process. They serve as a formal notices to protect the employee just as much as it protects the employer. For example, I’ve seen public employees in my state have their terminations overturned because there was no formal letter to file – even though issues with the employee’s performance were set out in e-mail or in person. It’s not considered formal enough of a warning that “your job is in danger.” It can be really inefficient and often protects someone who really should be terminated, but at the same time it offers worker protections.

    1. De Minimis*

      Yeah, the aforementioned “Letter of Warning” was part of this. I never knew anyone who received one because it was so far along in the disciplinary process that most issues got resolved beforehand. I believe they generally had a stipulation that they would be removed after a certain time period if there were no further incidents. But it was the point in the disciplinary process where things started getting serious. I think after the letter you could be suspended, and generally if someone did get to the point of being suspended their job was in serious jeopardy. There may have been some kind of “Final Warning” letter but that’s probably just my poor memory.

    2. I'm A Little Teapot*

      Actually, that’s one the things I don’t like about unions. If a person is screwing up their job that badly, I don’t appreciate a union stepping in and protecting them from getting fired because one piece of paper is missing. There should be appropriate documentation, yes, but such detailed and inflexible requirements is not going to do any good in the long run. That’s how you destroy an industry, kill morale, or poison the public against the entire group. Including the union itself.

      Example: bad teacher is protected by the union. What happens down the line? Parents get angry because their kids are negatively impacted, other teachers lose morale because clearly there’s no real accountability, overall environment sours, parents pull their kids from the now worsening school district, teachers get laid off…. Or if you’re lucky the community just wacks the union and all teachers lose protection. It’s not good for anyone regardless of how it plays out.

      1. Emily Spinach*

        But in this situation why isn’t a manager helping the teacher improve and/or clearly laying out (in writing, so it passes union muster) where the teacher is failing to meet their job requirements? That’s not a union problem; it’s a management problem.

        1. GreenDoor*

          I work for a district with a pretty powerful teachers union. They won’t defend one of their own if there is clear evidence of misconduct or a clear history of failing to meet job requirements. But they come down hard when there is evidence of bias, discrimination, or arbitrary decision making.

        2. Who Plays Backgammon?*

          We’ve seen plenty of postings about bad or incompetent managers, or those who are out to get someone sacked, not help them improve to be able to do a good job. I’ve probably worked for every kind of crummy manager you can name and I’ve seen it so many times. I wonder about the managers of manager; you’d think someone would question why nobody stays in Jane’s department long enough to go on the 401k, especially in the dead of a recession…

      2. Arctic*

        “Example: bad teacher is protected by the union. What happens down the line?”
        Employers do their job and document written warnings? It’s really not that hard. It’s not “inflexible” or detailed. It’s a step of their job they should be doing. And if they don’t it is entirely the fault of management that this teacher is kept on. Not the fault of the union.
        It is very easy to be “flexible” and then start firing because you want to open up jobs for potential political reasons. Patronage is still a very real problem (my state had a scandal in the Probation Department less than ten years ago.) There is a reason for these rules and they benefit all of us.

        1. I'm A Little Teapot*

          Nope, I only grew up in a school district that was trying to fire a teacher for years for poor performance and the union wouldn’t let them, despite documentation year after year (inside knowledge). Until said teacher was arrested, tried and convicted for abusing a student. I had that teacher. He was a horrible teacher when I had him, and based on everything I’ve heard since, he never got better. That union has now taken such heat from the community that it’s lost pretty much all power to protect anyone, and last I heard was possibly going to cease to exist. How does that help anyone?

          Yes, unions can be really good. Bad unions can be REALLY bad.

        2. LQ*

          I am in a union. And ours works like this.

          Part of it is people think that somehow management is maaaagic. They aren’t, they are also human. So when the union rep vigorously “defends” the guy who is a sexist asshole and who likes to bring up grievances whenever a female coworker gets promoted (somehow never when a dude does) and oh the time I got an office because I needed one that somehow managed to make him have a grievance, and when he continually would “forget” how to do it job and every single solitary time his buddy the union rep would lash out shouting and attacking the manager and she eventually gave up and just shuffled the guy off into a corner and tries to pretend he’s not there because she’s only human too. Yeah. Go unions.

          Unions and management and employees are all made up of people. Shitty people exist in all of these groups.

          Sometimes they are good and have good people who stand up for the rights of people (and when they are very very good they stand up for the rights of people who have a difficult time standing up for themselves, like people who don’t speak the same language as their employers, who have significant cultural differences, and who are most vulnerable to horrible managers). And sometimes they have shitty people who really like the asshole sexist guy and put all their time into defending him and never defend the (also union repped) people who he continually attacks.

          1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

            My experience with a union was that it was a bunch of egoists who played their power games at the expense of the people who depended on them and paid their dues. I wouldn’t give you two cents for a union.

        3. Mookie*

          Yes, this idea that an entire industry can be ‘killed’ by a union is an anti-union talking point. After a century’s worth of pro-corporate propaganda shoved down our gullets, the suggestion that the general public might be swayed against unions, whom they’ve been reared to regard as inherently corrupt and a danger to national security and the cure for which is always de-regulating the Invisible Hand / more arbitration less protection / reducing minimum wage / unleashing more for-profit education on a desperate community, is pretty funny.

      3. TardyTardis*

        But unions can step in and make sure a teacher with a broken foot is allowed a stool to prop it up. And yes, that was an Actual Issue when my husband was a building rep.

    3. GreenDoor*

      Came here to say this, too. In public service you can actually request a hearing to have a firing overturned so management needs to have, literally, every problem with the employee documented with written levels of increasing warnings/discipline, etc. to make a firing stick. It’s frustrating when you’re trying to get rid of a genuinely horrible employee….but it also prevents bosses from being arbitrary, biased, or retaliatory.

    4. Arctic*

      Same for us. It is for everyone to know where they stand. And document steps taken for when there is a grievance or arbitration over firing.
      My state (although thought of as liberal) doesn’t have that high a standard for terminating public sector employees. (Our standard is it can’t be arbitrary and capricious it sounds like you are in a just cause state.) And, unlike many government employers mentioned in comments here regularly, we DO fire people a lot.

      1. Holly*

        Nope, it’s an arbitrary and capricious state, not a just cause state. The letters to file requirements are in the CBA.

    5. government worker*

      I was coming here to say exactly this — it’s documentation that is required to escalate discipline. It’s not a perfect system, but it ensures that management can’t can an employee for no reason/retaliate for other things.

    6. Bulbasaur*

      Yes, that’s also common in countries (not the US) that have basic levels of employee protection in law, i.e. countries where you need to follow a process in order to fire people. Typically you need to demonstrate that you’ve clearly laid out the problem, stated what they need to do to improve, and given them every opportunity and all necessary support to do so. Once in a while it might need to stand up in court, and the employee gets the benefit of the doubt if there is any ambiguity (again, not the US) so it’s very important that everything be done by the book. HR is typically involved and advising every step of the way.

      In that context, a written warning is one of the steps in the escalation process. Typically it would be about the third step in the process (a coaching conversation being the first, and a verbal warning being the second). It could happen if there had been no improvement in the underlying problem over that time. This is not like the junior high style ‘write ups’ that others are describing, but a formal requirement of the performance management and termination process.

      To Little Teapot’s point, there are exceptions for egregious misconduct, for which you can be terminated on the spot (and the employment court will uphold that if the conditions are met). If it doesn’t meet that standard, well, terminations aren’t always the fault of the employee (as readers of this site will know well) and the two sides will often have very different stories. To an outside observer it’s not always clear who is to blame, or even what exactly happened. The formal termination process provides employees with some protection in these kind of scenarios.

      In practice things rarely get to that point in the formal process. Either the employee makes a good faith effort to improve (in which case the employer is obliged to help them as long as they are making progress) or they don’t. In the latter case it’s usually because they’ve decided that the job doesn’t inspire them, isn’t what they want for their career etc. so they will often quit on their own. Sometimes the employee will make a good faith effort but not succeed, and those can sometimes drag on for a while. But that’s an uncomfortable position for anyone to be in for long – nobody wants to be bad at their job. Very often it will prompt some soul searching and career reflection as in the first example (what am I really good at?) and lead to a resignation as well.

    7. Management's Not Union*

      This! I kind of bristled at Alison’s insinuation that write-ups were a result of managers not doing their jobs or not treating employees like adults. In a union environment, it’s part of the territory. I absolutely treat my employees like adults, but I also expect them to behave like adults and not treat me like their nanny. Write-ups are never the first course of action, and they are always proceeded by one or more conversations. You have a job to do, and if you’re manager has set clear expectations, why are you whining when you haven’t met them? In our line of work, coverage is essential, so yes, constantly clocking in just “3-4 minutes” late is a problem — it means that someone else has to pick-up your slack. Any manager worth their salt is going to understand that things happen: the kids get sick, the car gets a flat tire, a train stopped on the tracks, so a write-up can’t be universal, but there has to be a measure of responsibility on the employee’s part.

      1. JustaTech*

        But wasn’t that Alison’s whole first bit, about using “write ups” as documentation that the manager had had a conversation about the problem?

        I think the issue that we all are having with “write ups” are the managers who use them as the first course of action (or as a threat) and the companies who have rigid policies around those write ups.

        Or to speak specifically to your example: Useful write up is about someone who is regularly clocking in late, where it is impacting everyone’s work, and the manager spoke to the person back at the second or third late clock in.
        Not-Useful write up is the first time a person clocks in 3-4 minutes late, or clocks in late because the punch-clock isn’t working, or one person is written up for being 1 minute late but another person isn’t.

    8. Library management*

      Here to say that I have been management in a union situation. According to the union handbook.
      Six months of “coaching” meetings. Written narratives.
      Required official oral warning (that is actually written)
      Three months documentation. No change.
      Written warning.
      Grievances files. Three levels of arbitration meetings.
      Three months of documentation. Second Grievance. Three levels of meetings.
      Second Written Warning.
      Continued coaching, documentation.
      Rinse and repeat three more times. A year and 1/2 after the first written warning, I was permitted to have the separation meeting.

      1. TardyTardis*

        You’ve read about some of the managers other people here have run into, right? Shouldn’t workers have *some* protection?

  9. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    Companies or managers obsessed with written warnings are the ogres who want to challenge your unemployment claim in the event you’re let go in the end. We learned in this state, verbal warnings are impossible to use against anyone.

    The only time I was issued a “written warning” it was a page of utter insanity by an unhinged owner who wanted to scare me into shape. Only he underestimated me and it was the last straw that got me to find another job and quit.

    Only when it’s to document egregious behaviors to then show to the employment department is when a formal written document is provided. We call them written warnings. It’s supposed to be a disciplinary action that should give you a nudge towards “woah, they’re leaning towards firing me.”

    1. Not the Boss*

      Not all employees who challenge unemployment claims are ogres. For example, I’m currently dealing with a claim where the ex-employee is telling unemployment that was laid off because of lack of work. This is 100% false. He just stopped coming to work, and multiple attempts to call him over the next three days were ignored. We have TOO MUCH work and are desperate for employees.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I’ve challenged unemployment on occasion. Specifically for what you’re describing. You’re missing the point with how these people issuing warnings are over-the-top with them. For 5 minutes late last Thursday to too many pens on their desk on Monday. To try to build a “she just can’t follow any instructions, this is insubordination!” claim.

        The managers I’m speaking of are ones who set out to deny unemployment to everyone who they let go. Hence the mounds of paperwork they lean on.

        Also lying to the employment department is on my “oh hellllllll no” list. A former boss NEVER fought unemployment claims until the guy who was fired for being high at work and popped on a reasonable suspicion drug test filed as laid-off lack of work.

        1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

          A friend of mine worked for a family-owned company like that. The owner would go on a rip and fire somebody. They’d file for UI and he’d challenge their claim. Employers had 30 days to do that, so in my friend’s office, when the UI paperwork arrived, the employees would rally and hide it from the owner until it was too late to challenge.

    2. Observer*

      I’m with “not the boss”. We don’t do “write ups” to the best of my knowledge. But managers ARE expected to document issues. Because there are many times when it becomes important to be able to prove that things are above board. When the situation is iffy, we don’t bother challenging unemployment. Occasionally the firing was for cause but the person has enough other things going on that we’ll not challenge it despite the hit to our rate. But there are a lot of situations where it’s a pretty clear cu situation and we see no reason to take that hit.

      Read some of the letters on this site for some more extreme examples (the woman who complained that her boss had the temerity to undo the changes she had made – after having been told NOT to make the changes and they gu who got into a drunken fist fight at a company party are two that come to mind.) For less extreme examples, look at the number of people who decide to not show up to work without following proper call out procedure – especially when they don’t have time coming to them. (Especially in client facing positions, this is a MAJOR problem.) Or people who are found the have fudged their time etc.

  10. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    My husband works for the government, where you basically have to murder someone to get fired. So while the term “write-up” isn’t used everywhere, it’s a necessary evil to document that a worker is not doing their job, and not striving to make any improvements in order to CYA if you ever have to fire them. A lot of places call this a PIP (performance improvement plan). The thing that sucks about his job is that you can put someone on a PIP, and if they tow the line for the amount of days necessary to fix the issues, they start with a clean slate. This may seem ideal (if you screw up once, fix the problem and don’t want it on your permanent record), but in my mind if you continually have to put someone on a PIP because they’re slacking and not doing their job, past PIPs should be taken into account when making a decision on what to do moving forward.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This is also how union CBAs work in a lot of cases, naturally they’re different in each situation but the bottom line tends to lean towards making involuntary termination due to performance difficult. You better document it extensively for 97 years and then maybe you’ll be asked to take early retirement if anything.

      Unless they’re absent a lot, that tends to be the one that can be used easily enough. And the reason why you see truly good employees lost while others who show up and skate by because well…they’re “reliable”. Argh.

    2. Hola!*

      Yeah at a lot of the places I’ve worked, they have managers of… varying levels of professionalism and write ups force the manager document their process of discipline. Because believe it or not, a lot of people are dumb enough to “write people up” for the boss’s violation of policies or labor laws.

    3. Jessen*

      Reminds me of a guy (many jobs ago) where terrible retail store had a policy that if you had three sexual harassment incidents in a 6 month period you got fired. This guy had had 2 incidents every 6 months for years. The women would warn new hires about him. He was a lawsuit waiting to happen there.

      1. TeapotDetective*

        You’d think if anything would be a one-and-done-you’re-fired kinda thing, sexual harassment complaints would be that point – they actually had enough problems with it to have a POLICY on the matter?? I am boggled.

  11. Amber Rose*

    We do write ups. Does it surprise you to hear that we aren’t treated as fellow adults, but more like untrustworthy teens of some sort? We aren’t retail either. :/

    Husband’s work also does them, and they really are like your permanent record. They stay on file for two years and the one he got almost cost him a promotion. I had flames up the side of my face for weeks while he dealt with that stuff.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I had to purge a bunch of old HR files for a place years ago that was under new management and cleaning up. The backlog of files that should have been destroyed many years prior was only a glimpse into why that change was such a wonderful one.

      They used to write people up for using questionable grammar or typeos in an email. It was outrageous as I was shredding, trying to wrap my mind around the volume of warnings.

      An old timer then told me more about that manager in passing conversation (I of course never spoke of the things I was seeing!) and I understood that she frankly did view everyone as a child. It gave me chills. They do exist.

      It wasn’t a retail or mass call center place. I guess she would recruit people with difficult backgrounds in hopes to “save” them as well. Which explains a lot of the shenanigans I saw documented as well. Many regarding coming to work impaired. Whereas in all my years in a rough and tumble industry I’ve only ever dealt with twice and one was after someone had quit and just showed up high AF for his last paycheck. Yikessss.

      I’m so sorry your husband got burned like that. That’s absurd. I know places will use it against ppl so they don’t get a raise either!

      1. Amber Rose*

        Husband did get warning letters a couple times for typos and like, formatting mistakes. They couldn’t be formal write ups because that would get the union involved and they’d never put up with it, but they could go in his file to make him look bad. It took a solid year in his new position with a reasonable manager for me to convince him that his old manager was just a miserable wretch of a person, and a terrible boss.

        I’ve never been written up but it’s been used as a threat a couple times. “Do it again and it’s a write up.”
        The write up is apparently a punishment, which is infuriating because I’m a grown-ass woman, not a misbehaving child.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Written warnings should never be used as a weapon, it’s so vulgar and power-tripping.

          It’s like the equivalent to getting detention for walking too fast in the hallway at school.

      2. Jadelyn*

        Old HR files have the juiciest gossip. I had to do a lot of file cleanup when I first started at my job and oooooh boy. My favorite was the letter of warning in one employee’s file that boiled down to “Please stop boinking your secretary in the basement during business hours, we all know what you’re doing down there.”

  12. Anita Brayke*

    It sounds like write-ups are the same as “occurances.” Both remind me of gym class in Junior High, where we got “demerits” for not having our gym uniform on perfectly or having the wrong socks or whatever else. Very demoralizing, and I never liked gym class. Hmm.

    1. Anonymous Librarian*

      Yes! I thought the same. Where I work this policy applies to nursing staff and they are given an “occurrence” for every unplanned absence, even those where they called before their shift and used their paid sick time. I can’t post our policy, but Vanderbilt U has theirs online (https://hr.vanderbilt.edu/policies/attendance-punctuality.php) and it’s pretty similar. It makes no sense to me to add written warnings to someone’s file when they have used their sick time responsibly throughout the year and end up with 6 or so occurrences.

      1. AnonNurse*

        I went to the link and the really sad thing is I actually thought, “wow, they get 10 occurrences, how generous”. I’m rolling my eyes so hard. At my place of employment, we get 3 occurrences without discipline. Then progressive discipline for occurrences 4, 5, and 6. Occurrence 7 is termination. It’s beyond ridiculous. I can shock a rhythm, administer life saving drugs, and manage a patient’s care but I can’t call in sick when I have plenty of PTO for fear of discipline. Very infantilizing.

    2. Lucille2*

      Occurrences are similar, but IME the policy tends to be centered around attendance. It’s not like a write-up for bad behavior, but documentation for taking unplanned PTO or being late for a shift that requires butts in seats. And too many occurrences generally lead to termination. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a crap policy, and it feels like a write-up when you got caught in a snowstorm and couldn’t get to work on time safely.

  13. GreenDoor*

    I was written up once in an office job for “leaving too many pens on your desk at night.” I quizzically replied, “So you’ll spend the time and energry writing that up in a formal document, but you won’t take two seconds to simply ask me to put my pens away? ” I got the wide-eyed look and sputtering for a response. I didn’t stay there much longer after that.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Ooooh, I wonder if they’re related to the weird dude who had a company rule to never keep scissors out when not in use. As in standard office scissors. He told everyone that he feared someone becoming disgruntled and using them to stab another colleague.

      I don’t know if he wrote people up, I was just a temp for a couple days to help on a project. However I would be shocked it wasn’t just an immediate firing considering the fact the felt the need to explain the importance of putting scissors away on my first day.

      1. catwoman2965*

        This reminds me of a former director (who has since been fired) of my dept. Due to space issues, and the nature of my job, i didn’t have a cube, but a desk, in our “library”. A large open room, where we kept various documents, books, and other publications. And it had also been a de facto meeting and conference room before my desk was put there. So not only did i have to deal with people coming in and out, having meetings and conversations around my work space, but there was a lot of paper, as part of my job was to catalog and index a lot of what we kept in there.

        Said director did very little, and was a minimalist. And while my desk generally had stacks of paper on it, being that it was out in the open, and NOT in a cube, I was careful to keep the clutter to a minimum. He actually told my supervisor he wanted my desk clear of everything but my computer and phone each day when I left. Sorry, not happening. No rules saying that was how it needed to be, and I had nowhere to put things I was working on, or in the middle of. Plus, kind of cowardly not to address it with me directly. I wasn’t at all sorry when he was shown the door for other reasons.

    2. Shorebird*

      Ah, yes. Reminds me of the gig in which I was written up for clocking in 2 minutes late. The ensuing discussion with my supervisor lasted approximately 18 minutes – a full 18 minutes of my boss reminding me of her own importance and the value of her time. Since it took 9 times as long to discuss the fact that I was late in comparison to the amount of time that I was actually late, I pointed out that if her time were truly that precious, she should be spending it more advantageously. Needless to say, that gig didn’t last.

      1. only acting normal*

        I once had a call centre team supervisor spend a good 5 minutes explaining the seriousness of my clocking in *30 seconds* late from lunch. I just stared at her, incredulous. But I already knew she was inadequate to her job: she had to calculate our productivity stats (which determined our pay) but they were always slightly off… because she didn’t know how to calculate a percentage (she used a little table someone had written for her to do division, instead of the calculator she used for adding up).

      2. Who Plays Backgammon?*

        I once had an otherwise very reasonable, pretty good boss who nonetheless would spend a dollar’s worth of time arguing about a dime.

      3. sheworkshardforthemoney*

        I got written up for not smiling enough. Ironically, during my meeting about it I had to keep trying not to laugh because it was so ridiculous. Boss, assistant manager, my union rep and me were discussing how I didn’t smile enough. The union rep was sitting next to me and he almost lost it as well when he saw that I was choking on my giggles.

      4. seewhatimean*

        Had a manager stand with coffee in hand, and work tucked under his arm, outside the door of my workspace, waiting for me to come into the building, so he could complain about my tardy arrival (about 5min, if that) I was preceded by about 30 seconds by my male coworker, who had also been held up by the train crossing our only road access to work, and who did not get a complaint.

        Similar discussion ensued, re best use of expensive managerial time, and male coworker, to his credit, pointed out to manager that he’d also been held up and tardy…leaving that job was a huge relief.

    3. Jadelyn*

      My favorite write-up was at a part-time retail job where I was a shift supervisor, and got written up once for “talking below the line”. I am dead serious, that was the exact wording they used. I had to ask them wtf that even meant, because I was totally baffled and had no idea what I’d supposedly done wrong.

      It turns out that I was in trouble because I’d answered a coworker honestly when we were talking during a slow moment on the sales floor, and she asked what I wanted to do with my career and I told her – mildly, not being bitter or resentful or anything – that I didn’t see myself working in retail long-term, and I was hoping to get published and make a living as an author. Apparently the only acceptable answer was to get all heart-eyes and wax poetic about how much I loved working retail and wanted to work at that store until the day I died, or something? Gods forbid someone acknowledge that it was just a job and not be planning to make a career out of it.

      I laughed, refused to sign it, and shed not a single tear when the store closed a few months later.

      1. sheworkshardforthemoney*

        One of my co-workers got written up for calling the manager a “muggle”. Assistant manager overheard him and reported it. The co-worker showed everyone his paperwork, “Fergus called Boss “a muggle”. “

  14. CastIrony*

    Write-ups, on the other hand, tend to be used more often in customer service type jobs and other jobs that tend not to trust employees and don’t default to treating them as responsible adults, and they’re often used as “punishment.” Some of those employers have a system where if you get X number of write-ups over X months (or ever), you’ll be fired. And some of those companies “write people up” for relatively minor occurrences, like being slightly late.

    I have never seen the policy my job uses for part-time workers spelled out for me like this. I didn’t even know write-ups weren’t normal, much less just plain bad and infantilizing!

    Usually, as a shift (student) manager, I have only written people up for “no call, no show” after I call and text them for being like over 10-20 minutes late (The job requires people being here on time.), and I can’t reach them. To top it off, the form itself states that there is a three-strike policy, but as far as I know, the strikes aren’t enforced and are taken on a case-by-case basis (several strikes).

    Then again, my job got a new supervisor, and with the strike policy, the part-time workers are all on a token economy where if you get 20 gold stars for doing well, you get a prize from a bowl (e.g. a candle, a gift card, fish hooks).

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Gold stars? For adults? That are turned into trinkets?! My eyes are going to fall out of my face…

      You give kids stars for using the potty or sharing with their cousins, not adults. I need to lay down.

      1. EPLawyer*

        My husband is about to get an Amazon gift card for … doing his job. I’m not complaining because I have an Amazon habit. He has a different opinion.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Gift cards are compensation, that’s a different beast. I was looking at candles and “fish hooks” side. Also I’m interested in the amount of those cards…is it like $5 at Starbucks?! I can’t imagine a $50 Amazon card floating with some Yankee Candles…

          My dad got gift cards as incentives for each quarter they had no accidents in a highly dangerous field. (These are now frowned upon and seen as a way to try to avoid WC claims, oh the 90s…)

          Others do give gift cards for attendance incentives.

          You keep track of that internally, not with a sticker chart :(

        2. Lucille2*

          I had a customer service job once where I would get a monthly bonus for every month I didn’t call out sick. I didn’t even have to show up on time ever. The bar for employees was pretty low at that job. I felt like my ability to show up every day and answer the phone when it rang made me a star employee.

      2. Who Plays Backgammon?*

        I sometimes give my salesfolks gold stars, but they’re humorous “thank yous” or cute acknowledgements of some kind of teamwork. A change from smiley faces.

      3. CastIrony*

        The Man, Becky Lynch, yes, but the part time workers are mostly in high school or college, though there’s a few that are older, including one elderly person.

        I am not kidding.

        1. seewhatimean*

          hey, they can be expensive, and in the right neighbourhoods would be pretty “gold star”

  15. Not Me*

    I disagree that managing adults the right way always starts with an informal conversation. There are plenty of situations that are egregious enough to warrant a formal documented conversation as a first step.

    1. EAS*

      I agree. There are egregious behaviors which warrant an immediate “do that again and you will not be able to continue in this position”, which should absolutely be followed by a written communication, but don’t necessarily warrant an immediate termination. However, those are the exception to the norm, and shouldn’t be used frequently.

  16. Old Cynic*

    Great timing on this. I had a delivery driver this morning tell me that he had emergency surgery on New Year’s Eve and was away from his job until January 7th. He received a write up with his next paycheck that said his absence would be held against him in future performance evaluations, salary reviews, bonus calculations and consideration for promotions.

    1. Amber Rose*

      I feel like there should be a legal issue there. I don’t know if there is. But there should be one. :<

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Unless he has protections in place for FLMA or something of that nature, it’s sickeningly not illegal to use medical emergencies and leave against a person.

        Sadly in the US your job isn’t protected and you’re not shielded from it being used against you due to medical leave unless it’s under a specific law such as FLMA. If he did file that paperwork, then yeah, a lawyer would be licking their chops for that fish in a barrel.

      2. Jadelyn*

        If he’s eligible for FMLA – company meets the size requirements, he’s been there long enough and worked enough hours to qualify – then it could be. Or if he’s in CA, which specifically says employees can’t be penalized for using their legally protected sick time (all measly three days of it, but that’s a separate conversation). But if it’s a small company or he’s new or only works a few hours a week, he’s SOL.

      1. Jennifer Juniper*

        Or save money. I’ve heard of companies that write entire departments up so they don’t have to give raises.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I hope he finds a new job. Delivery positions are often as brutal as retail. They view them as easily disposable, it’s so gross.

  17. RabbitGal*

    Oh lord, this sounds like my call center job. My boss ignores us and our stats for weeks at a time, then suddenly sends mass e-mails of everyone’s stats with threats of writing us up for not having perfect call times/QAs/etc. Nothing about offering to coach. I’ve asked for help before and just get ignored.

  18. Secretary*

    Ugh this made my blood boil!! I once quit a job because of being written up at a call center.

    The first warning was warranted, the manager was a peer who had just been promoted to floor manager and was conducting a meeting and I said something in the meeting about wrapping up when it seemed to go offtrack because we all had full lists of calls to make. She spoke to me privately and formally about it, and I apologized.
    We were understaffed, I was doing 3x the amount of work everyone else was and was a top performer based on performance evals and numbers. The grandboss was pushing me to do more than what I was already doing and they were changing my schedule around constantly.

    There was the one gal, who was a low, LOW performer (I don’t know how she still worked there) who whenever she was absent I was asked to go through her calls, and I would catch tons of mistakes, bringing only the worst ones to management when I literally had to. It was so awkward, and I’m pretty sure she hated me.

    So two days after said conversation with the floor manager (which I later learned was actually a verbal warning) this coworker notates something on a call with one of my clients that makes it look like she didn’t help him and blew him off. I go to her and kindly ask her about it. When I learned she didn’t actually blow him off I said, “Oh phew! The way it was noted made it look like you’d blown him off! I’m so glad that’s not the case. Hey could you note that next time?”

    That afternoon, I again was called in by my manager who received “a complaint” about my tone. I explained I know who complained, and offered to give her context and explained all the issues that had been going on there. My manager let me talk, then as if she hadn’t heard a word was like, “well since we just talked about this and it’s happening again I need to issue you a written warning. Please sign.”

    I tried to explain there was literally no one else who had had concerns about how I handled things on the floor, and asked how I could avoid getting into this scenario again. Should I avoid this coworker? Should I stay out of her calls even when grandboss told me to go through them? The floor manager was basically like, “No you have to interact with her the same but she can’t complain to me about your tone.”

    I couldn’t afford to not have a job at the time, so I immediately started interviewing and got a WAY better job with WAY better pay a couple weeks later. I also refused to go through that coworker’s box and basically didn’t speak unless spoken to.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Sometimes. And women get it more. But it’s not true that “only” women get it. Sometimes it’s actually a legit issue. And sometimes it’s sexist. Both happen.

        1. seewhatimean*

          I got spoken to because I don’t always write “Dear So-and-so” in front of emails to colleagues I email frequently with short FYI type emails. Because my tone. I’m sure none of the other colleagues who do the same, nor the supervisor that spoke to me and does the same, have ever been tone-policed for this.

  19. SnowDay*

    I once made a small mistake that wouldn’t normally be a big deal (it was a mistake that other people made occasionally), but ended up being a big deal because of the specific context it was made in, so I got written up. One of my coworkers also got written up for a totally different mistake that normally wouldn’t have mattered much but did because of the context. So I always thought write ups were for one-time mistakes. It felt like years of good performance didn’t matter anymore since I now had a “write up” in my permanent record.

  20. Rust1783*

    My husband was told at his last job that he was being “written up.” He didn’t know what that meant. His supervisor later handed him a written warning and was told that this served as a “verbal warning.”

    My husband’s coworkers at this job were not too smart and he managed to get out.

    1. DecorativeCacti*

      At my job we have a disciplinary action form and it has a spot for you to fill out the type of warning. You, your manager, and your shop steward all have to sign it. For a verbal warning.

  21. MsMaryMary*

    Petty “write ups” are the pits.

    I do think a write up/written warning is warrented for behavior that isn’t coachable. I’m not talking about performance issues, but things like “if you ever get into a physical confronatation with a coworker/use sexist or racist langauage/use profanity towards a customer” again, your employment will be terminated” situations.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Oh dear. Swearing at a customer or racism is immediate termination everywhere I’ve been and I’ve been in some daaaaaank places that included fist fights (also those parties were terminated immediately). That’s a safety and well being of others violation!

    2. Hola!*

      Interesting, because I had a job where people were shouting and screaming and insulting me, their supervisor, in front of customers and I wasn’t allowed to write them up.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I’m glad you said “had” and it’s not your current job. That place is an evil hive of bees. That’s not how decent or even tolerable jobs work.

  22. Aggretsuko*

    This is right. I never got written up until I got moved into public service. I get written up a LOT now. It’s a joy.

    1. UK Civil Servant*

      “Public service” is no more a monolith than the “private sector”; there are good workplaces and houses-full-of-bees in both.

  23. Nervous Accountant*

    This is very interesting and enlightening. I never thought there was a difference between written warning vs write up.

    I’ve talked about this employee in the open threads, “Kevin.” We did this with him and we did it exactly the way it was written in Alison’s answer–informal conversations, serious conversations and finally this. All emails and exchanges with this person were uploaded to their HR file. I was chatting with the person I sent it to and asked why, she said it’s in case the employee tries to claim wrongful termination. I’m not HR and I don’t pretend to be, but all I know is that we did everything right with this person and there’s literally 0 improvement.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Ah the fear of “wrongful termination” gives me hives but is a common thing thrown around by run of the mill HR departments. If you’re an At Will jurisdiction, they have to prove discrimination or retaliation to win wrongful termination in most cases.

      Team Flush Kevin Down The Toilet.

      It’s borderline toxic behavior to be in such fear that you don’t act to remove bad employees out of fear of the litigation boogeyman!

      1. Nervous Accountant*

        Given that it was our HR person who bungled this (Said he had really great references when that was not the truth at all) I totally see this. (the other person I spoke to for that specific context isn’t the one who hired him, and she’s wonderful at her job).

  24. Anon, duh*

    My current employer uses the specter of write-ups as a vague, nebulous threat. None of our managers want to manage, however, so that’s pretty much all it is. Until you suddenly get demoted (rarely) or fired (less rarely) and told that you should have interpreted those vague threats as formal warnings. Actual write-ups are incredibly rare, in my experience, although not as rare as the quarterly evaluations we’re told are a corporate requirement. I’ve been here almost a decade and have had exactly zero.

    I have seen the write-up form and it’s laughable. Someone took a grade school conduct form and rewrote it for the workplace.

    The real poor performers here are all shielded by top management, so none of it matters anyway.

    1. LaDeeDa*

      OOO this is so intriguing to me! LOL! I want to know what industry you are in, what your performance management process is, and to see that form! LOL!
      Next week and over the next 2 months, I am delivering performance management training to people leaders at a company my company acquired last year- with 4,000 employees they have no defined PM process or structure around their globally set annual reviews. They are going to be shocked, and most don’t have the skills to conduct such reviews…

  25. Cheesecake2.0*

    I got written up once, at my very first job as a teenager, cleaning hotel rooms. One of the other cleaners was the niece of the hotel’s general manager and she did not do her job well and liked to faff around. She also liked to play “jokes” on the other staff. One time she went into a room that I had already cleaned and put dried leaves from outside on the floor. It was a room that was mid-stay, so when the guest came back, they saw the leaves and complained. I was written up and the GM refused to believe her niece had done it. I gave her my 2 weeks notice at that moment.

  26. LaDeeDa*

    In my thought process/experience a “write up” is different than a performance issue/plan. A write up to me is pure documentation and (usually) poor management. It is saying “you did X wrong, don’t do it again.” a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan) is “X behavior is not acceptable, and here are the expectations going forward. Let’s agree on a plan on how to improve from that behavior”

    1. catwoman2965*

      I agree. while I’ve never been formally written up, I have been the recipient of a blind-sided, totally sh*tty review, and placed on a PIP, early in my current job. What was interesting was at the time, I was in school, getting an MS in HR Management so I knew everything they nitpicked about, and the way they did it, was completely unprofessional. Thinks like saving up how I was doing things (or not doing things they wanted me to) correctly or at all, without any conversations about them, but pulling it all out at my review about how i was deficient in these things. well yeah, you don’t tell me you want me to do a instead of b, or do c when I have no knowledge of c and that it needs to be done, of course i’ll be deficient. Mind reading is not a skill I possess!

      I actually found out later my direct boss was actually pulling for me, and thought the whole thing was BS, and that it was orchestrated by someone higher up than my two bosses, simply because I wasn’t afraid to ask questions about things if I needed clarification or more info to do something! I was apparently supposed to be a sheeple.

      Thankfully i managed to accomplish everything on my PIP and 18+ years later am still here

  27. hbc*

    Write ups are pretty common in manufacturing. When used capriciously or with zero judgment, they’re awful. You don’t have to write someone up for being late if they’re having a bad week, and they definitely shouldn’t be the first warning someone gets.

    But…you wouldn’t believe the number of grown adults who needed to see a piece of paper going in their file to actually follow their supervisor’s instructions. I had one guy who was warned probably ten times about watching movies on his phone during work hours, and when we “wrote him up,” he was literally crying and saying, “I didn’t know you were serious.” There’s really no step you can take between verbal warnings and firing that isn’t infantilizing when they’re already behaving in a childish way.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      It’s often due to safety hazards that lead to more written warnings in manufacturing/production.

      I can only tell you to stop speeding on the forklift so many times and then you’re a danger that requires a formal “fix it or you’re done.”

    2. Management's Not Union*

      I agree with this. From the sounds of the complaints on this page, there are a lot of people who get written up for some ridiculous things. Maybe I’m just lucky that I’ve never worked for a boss that petty. Where I work, the expectations are really clear: unless something is aggregious, I’ve talked to the employee multiple times about the behavior/performance issue before we get to the write-up stage. That doesn’t make me a bad manager or a monster because the employee couldn’t/wouldn’t hold up their end of the bargain. Take responsibility for your own work and resolve to do better.

      1. Ingalls*

        “Even though you talked to me about being late, then gave me an oral reminder about being late and then a written warning that I signed that said next time I was late I would be suspended without pay for two days, I can’t believe you are suspending me for two days because I was late again.”

  28. 4Sina*

    As far as “it’s on your permanent record” goes, I’ve only been written up once – it was when I was a seasonal worker years ago at my current organization, and I was written up for insubordination (I will spare you the details because it’s funnier to act it out in real life). Anyway, fast forward a decade, I’m still at this organization, I’ve worked in various roles as they have suited my interests and skills, and I’m now in a FT position, given a lot of trust by my place, and my current director (who is amazing and wonderful) literally had no idea about this write-up (although she did know this manager and would have shared office space with her during the Great Write Up of 2009) until I brought it up. YMMV, but it did not follow neither laterally nor as I moved up.

    The former-manager, meanwhile, is happier at a different organization in a different role where she does not oversee anybody and that’s probably for the best.

    1. JediSquirrel*

      (I will spare you the details because it’s funnier to act it out in real life)

      I’m thinking science demands a YouTube video.

  29. Lucille2*

    I worked in a retail job in college. I was not a stellar employee. Once, the store manager told me he had to write me up for an offense which I deserved. But then, nothing happened. I don’t think there was actually a write-up process that existed. I’m pretty certain it was his way of telling me my behavior was unacceptable, and it was to never happen again. Of course, if I had been a truly terrible employee, I probably could’ve called his bluff. But I didn’t.

    Fast forward 20 years, and I’m a manager with an employee on a PIP. I had to document EVERYTHING. It was very exhausting. Mostly because he was just going through the motions until the day I had to terminate him – not doing anything to improve performance. Like Alison recommended, I sent an email follow up for our weekly check ins and copied HR. I wanted the process to be transparent so he was welcome to dispute anything that may have been misunderstood. He never did, and in retrospect, I’m not sure he ever would have.

  30. 653-CXK*

    At ExJob, if the offense was egregious enough (stealing, fighting, drinking/drugs, falsifying time sheets, insubordination, refusing to participate in an investigation, breach of trust, not calling in sick two days in a row) no writeup was necessary – you were immediately terminated. (I call it a “hard” termination because that meant you were ineligible for unemployment.)

    We had progressive discipline when we didn’t meet minimum requirements (processing and operations where accuracy and time were critical); usually it took five incidents within a year and their attendant results (PIP, alongside two meetings with managers, initial, written and final warnings) to be terminated. (I call a “soft” termination because you have to have a paper trail, and in most cases, are eligible for unemployment.)

    In terms of what happened to me, I had a “soft” termination. I tried hard to improve, but it just didn’t work out, and by that time, my manager and supervisor agreed that it was time to move on. That’s a sign of good management – and I was graceful and quiet the day I left.

    When you trust your employees and don’t treat them like red-headed stepchildren, the write-ups that do come up are tools for improvement, not weapons or power-trips to cover up insecurities.

  31. Anonymous For This One*

    I used to work in an exempt position for a major organization. All staff were routinely threatened with write-ups for things that never happened (e.g.- “Anyone who is not 10 minutes early to the meeting next month will be written up!” even though no one was ever late for meetings). We also had to sit through regular “presentations” (to put it kindly) by the CEO about the importance of being on our best behavior around clients and we were warned that we would be written-up if we were not. Topics included how to properly greet a client, smiling at all times when talking to a client, how to hold a polite conversation, etc. And there was role playing! You would think we were martians from another planet who had never interacted with another human being before. The CEO also had special rules about how “the little people” were supposed to interact with her. I know someone who was written-up for saying hi to the CEO in the elevator. Apparently, people should not speak to the CEO unless she spoke to them first. It was a really infantilizing place.

  32. Another worker bee*

    Ugh, this post just gives me PTSD flashbacks to all the service jobs I worked in high school/ college, and all the write-ups on my permanent record for all of my egregious lapses in professionalism: calling in to say I would be late to my afternoon shift because my school field trip was caught in traffic, calling in sick without 48 hours notice, coming to work sick and then having a customer complain about being served by a waitress with no voice, refusing to work the weekend of my college graduation because “mother’s day is a blackout weekend, no one gets it off”….

  33. Still at that company because he isnt*

    I had a boss who once wrote me up for being less than 10 minutes late for work (and I’d warned them, because it was due to a *broken down train* I was stuck on). I found it ridiculous, but to be fair I’d been slightly on-time-or-late (by mere minutes) a few times so I let it go. A few weeks later he demanded I be written up again for being five minutes late. I’d only actually been ONE minute (and honestly that depended on what clock you were looking at).

    We’re not talking about a role where I had to clock in, or was on a rostered shift. I called it out for the petty complaint it was to a colleague he respected and thankfully she went to bat for me and told him to pull his head in.

    Funnily enough he got quietly “let go” by the CEO (he was the COO) about 12 months later after one of those company wide anonymous surveys. I suspect he was widely hated and bullying a lot of staff.

  34. LovebyLetters*

    What are the thoughts for “written warnings” preventing you from .. well, doing anything?

    The company I work for is a large multi-national company with local … locations. They do their best to set up their system as one that’s more like a coaching structure, although whether or not it’s actually USED that way depends on the location’s management. (I’ve worked at a number of locations and I’ve seen it used both ways — “correctly,” and as a juvenile threat/punishment.)

    However, one of the things baked into the system that is standard across ALL locations is that if you have a written warning in the system for any kind of offense, you can’t transfer or be promoted for six months.

    … now that I type it out, I honestly can’t think of a defense for it, but I’m willing to be proved wrong? All it does is creates a system where they can trap you at one property and prevent you from being able to leave. What would be the benefit outside of making you terrified of fucking up?

    1. Oaktree*

      My thoughts? That sounds needlessly punitive, and unproductive. What does it do other than punish the employee? If that’s your only object, you’ve succeeded, but surely an employer wants to see improvement. How would this provide improvement?

      1. Jennifer Juniper*

        That’s also a way to keep high-performing employees in your department. Write them up for being 30 seconds late coming back from lunch, and they’re yours. Repeat every 6 months or until the employees get sick of your petty ass and leave.

        1. 653-CXK*

          Yes, indeed. It’s the infamous “We like you just where you are” scheme – and managers are shocked when they get two week notices from the high performers – it now means they have to turn over the work to those less savvy and competent than they were.

    2. 653-CXK*

      We had three phases of warning at ExJob: Initial, Written, and Final. If anyone was in the Written or Final phase, they couldn’t apply for jobs or be promoted. If they avoided any further incidents for a year, their record was reset and could apply for jobs again. If they blew the Final Warning, they were dismissed.

      On the whole, the write-up system was fair, but sometimes managers used it when they wanted to get rid of people to encourage them to leave.

  35. His Grace*

    I’ve been written up at almost ever retail job I’ve had. It’s petty af and really infantilizing. Grown people do not need to be treated like 6 year olds (and even 6 year olds get treated with more respect. That being said, don’t let them get to you. Just do your best and find a position that will treat you with respect

  36. AnonAnon*

    I’m in an industry where written warnings are common place. They take the form of a paper that says “On X date at X time, you did X bad thing…” And follows with a warning to improve and what specific steps the employee will take to remedy the situation. The only function they serve is to provide documentation in the event that disciplinary measures need to be escalated. If the employee has a pattern of misconduct, we have to be able to go to the boss with a written record that says, ‘The employee was formally counseled on X, Y, and Z dates.” Without documentation, the legal guys might come back and say that disciplinary action isn’t justified because there’s no record of written warnings.

    The employees (and I have been on the receiving end of these, too) understand what it means: It’s a written record of the fact that you screwed up, you were told to fix it, and if you don’t fix it the record can be held against you.

  37. boop the first*

    I vaguely remember getting a “write up” at a retail job ages ago. Maybe. I’m not sure that actually happened (not because of how long ago it was, but rather because of how little fanfare there was). Which just goes to show how little effect signing a piece of paper can have. If I ever got fired at my past jobs, it would have been their loss, by FAR.

  38. Oaktree*

    This is correct. I got “written up” for an infraction once when I worked in a fast food place (rhymes with Smeshi): basically, I looked pissy about making someone’s salad and also put something in by mistake that wasn’t supposed to go there (not an allergy issue- essentially I put in corn where there wasn’t any corn requested), and the person complained to head office. I got a write up and a talking to, and was warned that if I screwed up two more times, I was out of there. It was definitely about making me feel small, and showing me that I had no power and I’d better toe the line at all times or I could kiss making a living goodbye.

    I’ve never had that experience in subsequent white collar jobs- even when I’ve made some kind of error, the most serious thing that’s happened is I’ve had a chat with my supervisor or manager about how to do better going forward. Generally I’ve had the sense that we were having the conversation because they wanted me to improve, not because they wanted me to feel scared and stupid.

    Food service work is the worst.

  39. Erin*

    Oh my God! Can I please send this anonymously to my former boss? She came into the organization and wrote everyone up, including me. I had been a consistent high performer and “star”, and suddenly became a problem employee. I would go into the bathroom stall and text my husband, begging him to let me quit, starting having panic attacks daily, and one time I thought she was going to hit me. She eventually quit and was escorted out of the building, and all of her direct reports were singing “Ding Dong, the witch is dead”. So, so bad. The damage was done for me; I tried to have the write up removed from my record and was refused, and I got another job. My reputation in that company was ruined; but no-one stood up for me there either, so wouldn’t go back anyway. Very, very hurtful and emotionally damaging part of my professional life. Good news? Back in college, going for something completely different from Admin world, and am back to getting consistent high ratings on my evals.

  40. Wired Wolf*

    I got written up before the holidays for “unprofessionalism/insubordination”…this came from a new, very old-school assistant micromanager who was trying to bait me into a confrontation (any altercation on the floor is grounds for termination and over the summer I had witnessed two ex-coworkers fired for just that, all I did was say to her calmly “I am not arguing with you” and go back to my work…five minutes later the retail manager pulls me off my assigned job and herds me into the warehouse to break down a pallet that magically appeared…later that day I get whined at for not completing the assigned task that they knew I was pulled off of).

    Said assistant manager was only in two months, I’ve been at the store literally since day one (before, actually–I was the first hire for my department three years ago when the space was still under renovation). This assistant manager never spoke to me about the incident at all and was not present at the meeting I was hauled into a week later; it was just her manager and the retail manager presenting me with a one-sided written account that I was expected to sign (I did not, after explaining my side in detail) yet it was supposed to be a verbal warning. The next day I typed up my “version” and gave it to HR–who also was not present at this meeting and from his reaction when I emailed him I don’t think he knew anything about this “warning”–in a sealed envelope. My account was a good three paragraphs longer and had far more detail than what this manager typed up. I did not get a copy of what they wrote up, and wasn’t even allowed to take a picture of it.

  41. the corner ficus*

    We’re required to do 3 written warnings before we can fire an employee. Our company is huge on documentation because we have regional HR instead of branch HR. (I get the need, I’m not against it.) The thing that boggles my mind is that we do coaching on behavior issues before there is ever a write-up but when we say “We’ve talked about this in the past but the behavior is continuing. I’m afraid that it’s now advanced to write-up level.” there is always this look of incredulity and panic. Come on, I gave you two verbal warnings about this. You’re still taking an extra 20-min break in the afternoon so how are you this upset/surprised?

  42. Wired Wolf*

    In my case it was very unclear whether the warning was written (official, in which case all parties involved should have been present) or simply the first verbal warning that I have ever received in 20+ years of retail. I never got a sufficient reason for the warning, even after explaining that I was adhering to company policy (no fights on the floor) and asking them to explain how my actions were unprofessional or insubordinate given the policy that I was upholding.

  43. Anon today*

    I was written up three times over a two year period at a past job. One was a genuine mistake I made, one was a misunderstanding I had with a co-worker, and I forget the third one. It was really demoralizing because none of the three incidents indicated a pattern of mistakes or incompetence. They were unrelated and not things I had been coached on or talked about prior to the written warnings. It was one of the reasons I left there.

  44. Snazzy Hat*

    My s.o. worked at a franchise sandwich shop for a short time. The incompetent manager treated write-ups like memos. For example, “wheat bread goes on the top rack” is supposed to be interpreted as “new rule: we are now moving the wheat bread to the top rack instead of the third rack”, but it’s written on a document that goes to corporate HR and implies “Wakeen never puts wheat bread on the top rack even though I’ve told him repeatedly, so now I’ve filled out this document demanding that he put the wheat bread on the top rack.”

  45. XochiGal*

    Yep. I work in retail, and one person I work with was written up for being one minute late. Retail sucks.

  46. Wired Wolf*

    I got hauled in for a meeting on Friday about “attitude problems” (complainer was this middle manager that has it out for me). She claimed this was a repeated problem….so why is this the first time ever that I’m hearing about it?

    My “attitude”? Not verbally confirming in detail every single thing she tells me (wastes time, that’s not how I work), and just doing my job. I’m not sure how my telling her “I’m doing a beverage run right now” was attitude. HR was present but I was not asked to sign anything, just told “we’ll see how things go for awhile”. I still don’t know what I’m supposed to “fix” or how to do it. I’m just keeping my head down and documenting everything…I’m not the only one who has problems with her or the way things are being run.

  47. Hawk*

    I’ll never forget the time I was working in a retail job and got written up. I made a habit of always arriving at work 10-15 minutes early in order to avoid being late. Unfortunately , one evening there was a gas leak across the street from my store and traffic was completely blocked. There was no way for me to turn around and no other method for me to get to the store in any case. I called them to let them know that while I could see them from my car 15 minutes before my shift started that I couldn’t actually get into the store because of the gas leak.

    And of course, when I walked in 15 minutes late, the leak finally being cleared up enough to allow the passage of traffic, I got written up anyway. As if there was anything a responsible adult could have possibly done to avoid the situation.

  48. I Really Need To Get Out Of Retail*

    Ah I fondly remember the time my assistant manager was telling me I couldn’t use my cel phone in the store WHEN I WAS OFF THE CLOCK AND LEAVING FOR THE DAY. I argued back that the company can’t tell me what to do when they are not paying me. We went back and forth a little on the issue until he abruptly just turned and left (which was his standard way of behaving when he got frustrated). The next day the store manager gave me a write up for “Insubordination”. I was furious and wrote my version of events and a lengthy rebuttal on the back of the paper before I would sign it.
    I’ll admit I’ve often worried that black mark in my file would negatively follow me, so the comments here about how common and baloney it all is are very reassuring.

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