In 2005 while working at a prior company I received a written warning from my manager, in which he listed three complaints over the preceding 15 months regarding some team/manager arguments and the tone of some of my emails. There were multiple embellishments and distortions within the document and I further viewed it as a mischaracterization because it listed so few issues over a long period of time while ignoring my contributions. But in trying to clear my name from the complaints I gained several insights into how companies can better handle warnings. Speaking from unfortunate experience (and as the search keywords for this blog entry as reported by Google Analytics can further attest), poorly done warnings can cause a lot of unnecessary distress and corresponding damage to team harmony. So I thought it might be good to share some lessons learned:
Avoid blanket condemnations of the employee. My manager, since deceased, when he was happy with you he would give undeserved praise but when he was unhappy he would go well in the other direction. So my warning was rather severe, I remember mumbling to my management chain present after receiving it "Don't you have anything nice to say about me?!" This in turn caused me to spend a lot more effort trying to clear my name and becoming resentful both at my management chain as well as with the company for not providing me effective avenues for name restoration. If the warning were more balanced, perhaps taking into account the work I had been doing on the project at that time, it would have been a lot easier to absorb the criticisms and to focus on them constructively.
Consolation for recipients of counterfactual warnings: People realize there are two sides to every story and discerning managers would be careful to sanity check the complaints by getting your feedback rather than immediately accept the warning as gospel. Further, the fact that you're still working at the company means you can only be so bad and no worse (clearly, nothing reached the level of termination), and so an efficient and logical rebuttal against any warning going seriously overboard would be "Were that warning true as written, there is no way they could have kept me on the team." Finally, while smearing is most likely the result of a angry manager blowing off steam, it can also be intended to drop the employee's productivity by stressing him out over false charges, making it easier to remove him from the account. If you're in such a poisonous environment, probably best to protect your mental and physical health by switching companies. In the interim, you may wish to create a written rebuttal, so you'll quickly be able to provide a coherent and efficient correction to the document's assertions if ever necessary.
Make sure appeals are independently heard. Towards the end of my tenure at the company it became apparent that the HR representative whom I was directed to for my appeals had played some role in the warning and was hence evaluating appeals to his own work, a conflict of interest, while providing me substandard information and advice as I was trying to get my name cleared. Employees make investments in their companies and appeals to warnings should be fairly heard, a process best ensured by having them evaluated by officials who would not personally look bad if the document indeed warranted removal or modification. More importantly, should an employee find a significant problem in a warning that the HR representative had signed off on, rather than just have the latter absorb the concern it would be better other officials be made aware instead, to reduce the chances of the "significant problem" being replicated with other employees.
Allow the employee to file a response to the warning. Best to place a statement along the lines of "You may provide a written response to this warning and it will remain in your personnel file" so all employees know they have that option if they need it. There was no such statement in my warning causing me much stress and wasted effort trying to craft an appeal process that due to ill-defined procedures and office politics made little progress. Submitting a written response is faster and simpler for the employee and avoids the employee-manager friction involved with appeals. Also, some charges are not very disputable in that they are mostly true, the manager's word against the employee's, or matter-of-opinion related. Allowing the employee to file a response at least lets him explain his decisions, correct any distortions or embellishments, attach email or other written evidence, etc., deflating many issues even if they can't actually get removed. Further, for future intracompany interviews it's much easier on the employee to say "Yes, I was given a warning, and my response to the complaints is in my personnel file", allowing him to continue on with the rest of the interview, than need to spend valuable time verbally refuting/explaining the same issues over and over again.
Evaluate each complaint in the warning separately. The presence of truthful or as-yet uncontested charges does not mean known false statements should be retained. While the bulk of warnings are probably legitimate, they also play a role in workplace mobbing situations. Here, a manager piles on several dubious charges all at once on the unwanted employee, playing off that the fact that (1) due to the complexity frequently involved with each issue an employee can realistically appeal only one charge at a time and (2) the official hearing the appeal may erroneously think that the other complaints are therefore true, disdain the employee as a result and not be inclined to remove the single false charge, preventing the employee from clearing his name on not just that issue but for the same reason the others as well. Of course, it's never acceptable anyway to retain false complaints against a person, but it's sadly ironic when the retention was done based on the assumed validity of other complaints that could also have been removed had the employee only been able to get to them. I would suspect the inability of administrators, even the best-intentioned, to properly compartmentalize each complaint and evaluate them separately to be a common occurrence, and so my previous recommendation of allowing the employee to file a written response provides a helpful mechanism should an employee ever be in the unfortunate position of having too many complaints to answer at once.
As an aside, for any incoming Googlers incurring nastier forms of workplace harrassment, the Nineveh Yahoo! Group is a resource. If your reputation has incurred harm due to mobbing, I've found starting a blog in one's field and feeding it well to be an effective route to name-recovery, indeed, even putting me in a better situation than I was before.
Be prepared to remove at an administrative level complaints falling within certain categories, even if true. Some classes of complaints that companies should be careful to remove:
Stomp and Reprimands (S&Rs): An S&R occurs when a manager, in a figurative sense, deliberately stomps on an employee's foot and then reprimands the employee for saying "Ouch!", or if not finding the "Ouch!" to be reprimandable enough, falsifies the employee response in order to get it to that level. Generally, whenever a manager writes "When I did X, you did Y!" where X was done for the sole purpose of engendering Y, you have an S&R that needs to be tossed out. It may well be, for example, if you blare a boombox at a certain employee for four hours he might respond less angelically than his coworkers would, but managers shouldn't be doing that for the lone purpose of creating that situation.
Less rigorous administrators might argue for the retention of S&Rs on the basis of having a negative view of the employee, but it's not good to be pouring gasoline on the office jerks in such a manner. With an S&R you're adding the employee's anger over getting his foot intentionally stomped on by then reprimanding him for his response to it, which runs the risk of office violence, especially if the falsifications result in him not being able to find work. Further as such harrassment is occurring on company or customer time while obviously dropping the employee's productivity, all a manager is saying with an S&R is "When I misuse company/customer resources, Bob gets really angry at me!", hardly a legitimate reprimand and certainly not one that should exempt the manager from scrutiny over the misuse of the resources.
Disallowable Criticisms: A disallowable criticism is something that is true about the employee but should not be used against him within future intracompany interviews. These should be removed from the warning to guard against that occurring. Common disallowable criticisms might be failure to do something illegal or inethical or otherwise against company policy. For example, for a company which explicitly prohibits managers from soliciting charitiable donations from their employees, any criticism by the manager over an employee's failure to donate would be disallowable because the manager wasn't supposed to make the request to begin with. However, if such a complaint were kept in the warning, too many hiring managers, either unaware of or in disagreement with the policy, might get swayed by seeing the modest requested donation amount or quality of the charity and then improperly hold the non-donation against the prospective employee. Another benefit of having disallowable criticisms removed at an administrative level is that people at that level tend to be most aware of all the legal and corporate matters involved with minimal emotions to distract matters, making it easier for the matter to be handled accurately.
Complaints involving third parties: Perhaps best to explain via example. Let's say there's a complaint similar to "Bob, on such-and-such a day, you sent a mean, nasty email to your coworkers Sam and George!" Further, the email was sent because Sam was doing X and George was doing Y, where X and Y are unstated in the warning and beyond the scope of what one should be bringing up in interviews. It may be that Sam and George had nothing to do with the warning and if it were up to them they'd happily remove the complaint so Bob wouldn't have to discuss the matter elsewhere. In cases where the complaint is minor enough but where Bob can't sufficiently defend himself without discussing matters involving others that really don't belong at the interview table, it would be good to provide Bob the opportunity to remove the matter at an administrative level.
Time out the warning after a certain period. Perhaps like most, the company never timed out its warnings, but one warning template I've seen places a sensible statement similar to "After one year of satisfactory service this warning will be removed from your personnel file." A warning's purpose should be to improve behavior rather than be used perpetually as a club against employees trying to continue on within their company. Further, timing out a warning rewards an employee who decides not to contest complaints in order to focus on customer needs by allowing him to just run out the clock on the document. It also helps ensure that other projects interviewing the employee far into the future do not place undue weight on outdated matters.