DEAR WOUNDED: I have had a spotless record in 20 years of work. I was shocked to suddenly get a verbal warning. What should I do?
ANSWER: Your e-mail reminded me of the time I'd just finished my meeting on the 40th floor of the Sears Tower. I asked the receptionist how to get to my next meeting, on the 70th floor. She replied, "You can't get there from here." I knew what she meant, that there was no elevator that went directly from the 40th floor to the 70th, but still, it was surprising to hear those words spoken.
A verbal warning is a lot like my journey in the Sears Tower, sometimes before you can go up, you have to take a step back. But learn from it and you can emerge even stronger. I've listed some tips below. For more, check out "Working People Smart" by Silberman and Hansburg (Berrett Koehler, 2004).
Do you take serious inventory of what happened, and why? It's easy to blow off a verbal warning. I've done it and so have most people I know. Rather, see it as a chance to re-evaluate yourself and the company you work for and think about what needs to change.
Do you ask, what key behaviors would you like to see? Rather than just focusing on what you did to earn a verbal warning, I think it's important to ask your supervisor to outline the specific behaviors that he or she expects.
What role models exist? There are almost always people in a company who are doing a great job. We tend to make fun of these people or ascribe their success to sucking up, or some other negative behavior. Rather than trashing these people, what can you learn from them? I'm a huge fan of buying Ms. or Mr. Perfect a cup of coffee and picking his or her brain.
Do you take notes?If you are going to take this to heart, it's important to not just try to commit it all to memory. Take notes during your conversation so that you can review them later, when you are alone with time to think. If nothing else they can be the "before" point as you start a process of personal growth.
Do you establish feedback loop? If your boss doesn't suggest it, ask for an appointment to discuss your progress at a reasonable interval. See this as a continuing dialogue, not just a one-time slap on the wrist.
Should you challenge the warning? Not all warnings are fair or appropriate. If the above steps have been taken and you were treated unfairly, you might want to talk to your boss or HR about the warning. Although it is just the first stage of discipline, it does go on your record so you shouldn't blow it off. If the situation persists unfairly, make sure your resume is up-to-date.
You can get there from here, but you've got to learn all you can along the way.
We'd like to hear your strategy for dealing with a verbal warning. I'll give an autographed copy of "Working Wounded: Advice that adds insight to injury" (Warner, 2000) to the best submission. Send your entry, name and address via: http://workingwounded.com or via e-mail: email@example.com. Entries must be received by Wednesday (Dec. 15).
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