The Warning Shot

What do you do as a boss when you have repeatedly addressed a performance or behavior issue with an employee and there is no change?

Before firing an employee, s/he should have the benefit of a warning shot. In the HR world it’s called many things – “Pre-termination warning”, “Performance improvement warning”, even informally as a “Come to Jesus meeting.”

The Half Moon replica on the Hudson River (2010)

I like, “Shot across the bow”, an 18th Century nautical term. The action was intended to urgently call attention and demand some action of compliance from passing ships.

If you have an HR department, you should coordinate this activity through them to ensure consistency with past practices. Your HR folks may prefer written warnings &/or progressive disciplining.

Having conducted many such verbal warnings, here are some tips to making them effective:

Involve someone of higher authority, which can include your immediate boss or someone from Human Resources (preferred). Another person’s presence can show fairness (a second opinion) and seriousness. Including HR in particular illustrates the severity of the situation.

–          Be sure to discuss the issues and process with the second person before the meeting. If it’s HR, they will look at any potential legal issues, and will help with follow-up documentation.

–          Know what you are going to say.

Pick a private setting like a conference room or office and ask not to be disturbed. Public settings such as restaurants are not appropriate.

–          I prefer Friday afternoons to allow the employee to reflect on the matter over the weekend and hopefully discuss it with a partner or friend.

–          The employee may be shook-up a bit afterward, so be extra considerate.

The messaging should be brief, constructive and to the point. Things you can say:

–          I’ve spoken to you about this matter in the past, and feel that no progress has been made.

–          What has prevented you from complying with my requests?

–          This behavior is not fair to the others on the team or the company.

–          This is your final warning. If we don’t see immediate improvement, it can lead to termination.

Let the employee know that you want things to work-out. Take the time after the meeting to write-up key points of the discussion. If you have an HR department, share it with them. You may have to use it for future documentation.

I have found that about 75% of employees heed a shot across the bow, and change course. The others quit or are soon fired. When progress is made, let the employee know. If there are not immediate and lasting improvements act quickly to terminate.

Further reading:

Issue a verbal warning for poor performance. (

Employee verbal warnings. (

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