Written warning without specifics, isn’t fair

Dear Joan:

My boss met with today to tell me that I won’t be getting a raise or a bonus due to the fact that I need to change my conduct at the workplace. I have been with this company for two years and I have never been written up. I have always been given good reviews and have gotten raises and bonuses every year until this year.


It was never brought to my attention that this company was not happy with my conduct and they are giving me 90 days to change or they will let me go. They tell me that I am great at my job, my staff likes me and I have kept the cost down. In fact, it’s the best of all the divisions. And my reports are always accurate and on time.


This doesn’t make sense to me and I am wondering if I have any recourse? They didn’t give me any specifics—only that my peers said that I have used vulgar language and I am intimidating. I am the same person I have been since I started there, so why now is it such a big issue? Do you have any suggestions on how I should respond?



“Gotcha” isn’t a fair game. One player is surprised and the other holds all the cards.


Unfortunately, your manager didn’t tell you about the issue when he first became aware of it. I suspect that it has been talked about by your peers and perhaps even among your boss’s peers but for some reason no one told you. And this is a heck of a way to finally find out.


The reasons you haven’t been told by now I can only speculate. Perhaps you are perceived as so intimidating even your boss was afraid to approach you, for fear of your reaction. Or, perhaps your boss was unaware of it, until your peers got fed up and told him he had to do something. Maybe he tried to tell you in subtle hints. Or, perhaps your boss is so weak he wasn’t going to deal with it until someone above him, or HR, forced him to tell you.


Regardless of cause, you are now faced with a choice. Do you want to discover what you are doing and work on changing? Or, do you feel you’d be better off working for a better boss or company? I’ll assume you want to stay.

Here’s what I’d suggest:


You can’t improve unless you know and understand what you did that your peers found offensive. As a result, write your boss a memo (which will become part of your documented discipline file) explaining that you had no idea that there was any problem. Explain that you thought you were doing fine, since your Division results were excellent and you had received good raises and performance reviews. (This will document that they screwed up by not telling you sooner and may buy you some time. A 90 day improve-or-get-out mandate, with no prior discussion about what you were doing wrong, is a bad management practice.)


In your letter, don’t sound angry or accusatory. Instead, express that you are surprised by the information and you want to learn what you need to do to change. Explain that you can’t change without specific examples. Clearly state that you are open to feedback from others.


Request a meeting with him to hear more details. Ask if you can meet with your peers, one-on-one, to learn if there is anything you can learn about your style. If your boss feels that is too intimidating for them, request that a third-party collect the information and give you the feedback. A 360-degree feedback process is often used for good performers who have a style problem they need to change. The outsider (often an outside, executive coach or HR) can protect the interviewees and gather valuable anecdotes that will help illuminate the behavior you need to change.


If he is unwilling to let you speak to people or to tell you himself, you are really in a bind. In effect, he is blindfolding you and telling you to find your way by hit or miss. It’s simply not fair. If that happens, start getting your job search strategy together.


The worst case scenario is he won’t give you feedback and you will continue to be confused and paranoid. Meanwhile, you will feel the pressure building and it will look like you are going to be fired. If this is the case, ask for a severance package. You haven’t worked there very long, but they may be willing to give you something, since they didn’t handle this well.


In your case, where your performance was good, and your raises and performance reviews showed nothing wrong, the company should shoulder some of the responsibility for not telling you the truth early enough for you to do something about it. Of course, you bear the responsibility for changing your behavior to meet expectations (as long as you know what those expectations are!)


If you do end up leaving to find a new job, make sure you seek a boss who is straightforward and honest with feedback. The game of “Gotcha” isn’t fun when you’re on the receiving end.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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