Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Warnings Should Include Consequences

There is a difference between a warning and an admonishment–but many supervisors don’t recognize the difference and fail to warn in a way that prevents a problem in the future.

An Admonishment Is Mild But Pointed Advice

An admonishment is a brief word of advice, counsel, maybe mild-mannered reproof.  “Becky, you do a great job when you get here, but you’ve been late three times now. We need you here on time, especially on the days you open up.”

An admonishment can also be delivered using a light tone and even a slightly humorous approach: “Hey Ken, stop throwing trash in the parking lot, it looks bad enough without your generous contributions.”

For most situations, an admonishment is enough to get good results. I recall the thought in a book for police sergeants: “To a mature  employee a suggestion is construed as an order.” 

Unfortunately, supervisors and managers often think an admonishment is a sufficient warning and they are frustrated and angry when the employee does the thing again. If they want to make sure the employee doesn’t do it again, they need to warn and give consequences.  

A Warning Is A Promise About What Will Happen

A warning can be formal or informal, verbal or written.  “Becky, you’re doing a good job otherwise, but you’ve been late three times now. The next time you’re late I’m going to have to put it in your permanent record and give you a formal reprimand. I don’t want to have to do that, so be on time from now on.”

Or, “Ken, after the last incident with you throwing trash in the parking lot after I had asked you not to, I recommended a formal warning and HR  approved it. This is your last warning. The next incident will result in loss of a day off.”

Employees Get As Confused as Supervisors

Last week an employee complained to me that she was getting in serious trouble because she continued to do something after she was warned not to. She said she hadn’t been warned, in fact her supervisor was laughing about it when he talked to her so she didn’t take it seriously.

The supervisor’s view was that a reasonable person would know his light-hearted remarks were a warning. I asked him if he had, in the midst of being light-hearted, told the employee what would happen if she did it again. He said no, but surely she realized she would get some sort of sanction.

Was that an effective warning or merely an admonishment? His HR Department and his manager viewed that he had not warned the employee because he hadn’t told her what would happen next.  His manager told him that if he had warned her, it would also have reminded him that he had an obligation to follow through, whereas with an admonishment there is no follow-through mentioned.

The bottom line: The reason many employees continue their problematic behavior or performance is because they are admonished, but they are not warned. The reason many supervisors get frustrated with continual problems is that they think they are warning, but without consequences it’s just advice that the employee may not take.

I like the warning on the sign in the photo. I asked a police officer in that town, Griffin, Georgia (my place of birth), if many people hit the bridge. He said it happens now and then, but not nearly as often as it did when the sign just said, “Danger, Low Bridge. No trucks or loads over 16′ high.”

Knowing the consequences and knowing what actions will result in those consequences can make all the difference in what a person does next.

January 15th, 2012 Posted by | Assessment Centers and Interviews, Challenging and Problematic People, Supervision and Management | 5 comments


  1. Excellent advice (admonishment?). I’ve never had an employee fail to heed a warning, but I’ve had several employees have to be warned after I’ve tried handling a problem through an admonishment. It’s just human nature I guess to not pay as much attention when there isn’t going to be a consequence.

    I think you can give a warning and still sound encouraging though, so it doesn’t have to be an overly stern sounding thing. I liked the photo too and think it’s a clever idea.

    Comment by P.A.H. | January 16, 2012

  2. When I was a newbie I wondered why my boss always had to tack onto every warning something about what would happen next time. It sounded threatening to me and I resented it. Then I became a Team Leader and later a Manager and I know now why my first boss did that. I tell employees about my experience as a way to let them know that I know how it sounds to go through the warning-consequences statement, but it’s just a way to help them avoid the consequences.

    I like articles like this. There aren’t many places to get advice about the nitty-gritty of being a Team Leader or supervisor. The pork rind cranberry story was funny too…i’ve been catching on my reading this a.m.

    Comment by macman | January 16, 2012

  3. Good thoughts about a common problem for supervisors. @macman mentioned what holds most supervisors back….they don’t want to sound threatening. I sometimes tell an employee that the rules call for a written reprimand next,or that most likely the penalty will be time off if the employee does it again, etc.That way it’s not me threatening to do something, it’s what my agencies protocols require and I represent my agency. It’s still tough sometimes though.

    Comment by gsa1540 | January 17, 2012

  4. The trucks won’t hit the bridge because they have a good way to know whether their load is too high. The trouble with most work is that one time something is considered wrong and the next time it’s OK. So, I could do the same thing twice and one time nothing gets said and the next time it’s like I did the worst thing in the world. I get what you’re saying, but I don’t think any of my supervisors would understand it. I don’t think any of them know how to do their jobs very well. Sorry to say it but its true.

    Comment by N.T. | January 17, 2012

  5. Hi Tina. First time here but wanted to congratulate you on a well-done site. I have to partially agree with “N.T.” about how warnings don’t always mean much because we have one employee who has been warned, oh I’d say about 15 times, to not shout out a direction to someone, like its an order from the king. Now, it’s a joke and someone will say it’s warning three thousand. But another employee made a mistake on an order and got a warning. Three months later she made another very small mistake in the middle of a hectic time and she got written up because she had already been warned. Should I mention that the guy is a friend of our boss? Warnings don’t mean much if the boss doesn’t do the same thing for everyone who is warned, agreed?

    Comment by Boomer | January 30, 2012

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