When You Receive a Warning at Work

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    No one likes receiving a warning or counseling on their job performance. Constructive feedback can trigger all kinds of reactions. But here's how to keep your cool and remain professional.

    When You Receive a Warning at Work

    Sheila, the unit nursing manager approached Ashley on the floor. “Ashley, I need to see you today in my office. Can you let your preceptor know you’ll be off the floor from two until two thirty?”

    Ashley’s stomach sank and her stomach churned. Somehow she knew it wasn’t going to go well. She dreaded the meeting and at the same time wanted to get it over with.

    No one looks forward to performance counseling. But when you are given a verbal or written warning, you are also being given a chance to turns things around and save your job. Here's what to do and what not to do.

    Don’t Be Defensive

    It never helps to be defensive when you are being counseled, even when you feel they are wrong or misinformed.

    Chances are that your manager hasn’t directly observed your performance, but she has received feedback from your coworkers and preceptor. If she says “It has been brought to my attention” or “Several people say…”, do not ask who “they” are.

    She most likely is not going to divulge names, and asking “who” complained may be seen as a way of deflecting or discounting the feedback she’s giving.

    The best thing is to listen carefully, strive for understanding, and take it to heart.

    Being Blindsided

    It feels like a sucker punch when it comes as a complete surprise. Maybe your preceptor has given you no meaningful feedback or only positive feedback. When negative feedback on your performance comes as a surprise, you can say that you were not aware of these performance problems, but that you appreciate being given the opportunity to (now) improve.

    Damage Control

    What if the meeting did not go well and you reacted poorly? Even if time has passed since a meeting with your manager in which you were taken by surprise, you can remedy the situation by circling back and giving this message:

    “I’ve had some time to think about what you said, and I see your point.”

    Ask for Clarification

    If the feedback is vague, make sure you understand the specifics of the concern. Without being defensive or argumentative, ask for clarification.

    “I understand that my time management is a problem. How would my performance look different if my time management were improved?”

    Ask for Help

    When you ask your manager for help, you convey that you want to improve and you value their feedback and advice.

    “What do you think would most help me to improve my prioritization skills?”

    SMART Goals

    Your nurse manager should provide you with an action plan. If not, ask for one! If not a written action plan in so many words, then be sure you are provided with measurable goals. The best goals are SMART Goals.

    • Specific
    • Measurable
    • Achievable
    • Realistic
    • Timely

    For example, a new grad may be asked to improve time management skills. Your performance goal(s) should include all of the above in order for you to succeed and for you and your manager both to know if you’ve met them.

    Close the Loop

    Ask when you will meet again with her to review your performance. Ask if you can come to her with questions or guidance before that time if needed.
    “I’d appreciate frequent feedback from you to see how I’m doing and where I can improve.”
    This makes the manager a partner and a coach and holds them accountable to the process.
    Make a point to stay in close touch informally with short office drop-bys, a smile, a wave. The more closely you stay in contact with your manager, the better.

    Preceptor Feedback

    If your preceptor does not offer regular feedback, ask.

    After a procedure, ask “How did that go? Is there anything I should have done differently?”
    At the end of each shift, ask for specific feedback.

    “Now I was working on my time management today, can you give me feedback on how I did?” or “Can you tell me what went well today and what I could have done differently?”

    This gives you timely feedback, and is also laying the groundwork for your next manager meeting. If your preceptor simply says you did “fine” four shifts in a row, it’s difficult for the manager to say your performance is not up to par when you’ve been given positive performance feedback.

    Transfer to Another Unit

    It’s not uncommon for a nurse “who is not cutting it” to be transferred to another unit.
    And sometimes transfer to a new unit or a different shift can be a good thing. It can provide a fresh start with a new group of coworkers.

    Unhealthy Work Environment

    You may come to realize that the problem isn’t you, but the work environment. Maybe there’s a lack of support, or bullying, or some other form of a toxic environment.
    Some work environments are selectively toxic, meaning toxic to new grads in particular.
    Toxic environments do not magically right themselves and become supportive wonderful work environments. There are many reasons why nurses quit. Once you realize you are in a toxic environment, then the best thing to do is to strategically plan your exit.

    I hope these tips help you to be prepared if you ever find yourself in this situation.

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    Last edit by Nurse Beth on Jul 31
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    11 Comments

  3. by   sideshowstarlet
    Good article! I have a question, though. In your experience, how would you tell whether the work environment is toxic or you are feeling defensive about being counseled?
  4. by   Roz, RN
    I was in a situation where someone had outpatient labwork done. One of the clinic nurses came to me (in the ER) and told me the patient needed to be seen. I explained that, since the PCP knew what the problem was, based on the lab results, the patient did not need to be seen in the ER. Instead, the patient should be admitted for appropriate treatment. When the clinic nurse started to argue with me, I inadvertently rolled my eyes. Shortly after that, I was called to administration. I was suspended for three days for "creating a hostile work environment". All I did was try to provide appropriate treatment for a patient.
  5. by   NurseCard
    Quote from Roz, RN
    I was in a situation where someone had outpatient labwork done. One of the clinic nurses came to me (in the ER) and told me the patient needed to be seen. I explained that, since the PCP knew what the problem was, based on the lab results, the patient did not need to be seen in the ER. Instead, the patient should be admitted for appropriate treatment. When the clinic nurse started to argue with me, I inadvertently rolled my eyes. Shortly after that, I was called to administration. I was suspended for three days for "creating a hostile work environment". All I did was try to provide appropriate treatment for a patient.
    Crazy! I mean, if a patient had labs drawn, and was shown to have low
    potassium, they need to be directly admitted to the floor for IV
    potassium! Simple, right? I mean, in that patient's case, the
    only issue was that the labs were out of whack, right?

    Back to the thread though... like Roz pointed out, you're going
    to get called to the principal's office a LOT, even 20, 30 years
    into your nursing career. Not just at the beginning of it!
    The article teaches excellent advice.
  6. by   sideshowstarlet
    Even I know that to be creating a hostile work environment, your actions would have to be based on the other nurse's race, sexual orientation, age (if over 40), or other legally protected class. This is the legal definition. Being thick-headed is not a protected class. Sorry your manager couldn't stand up for you AND what was right for the patient. I don't know how this boss expects to lead others if they allow themselves to be trampled upon by workers in other units/facilities.
  7. by   sideshowstarlet
    Quote from NurseCard
    ... you're going
    to get called to the principal's office a LOT, even 20, 30 years
    into your nursing career. Not just at the beginning of it!
    The article teaches excellent advice.
    This makes me feel both better and worse lol
  8. by   Nurse Beth
    Quote from sideshowstarlet
    Good article! I have a question, though. In your experience, how would you tell whether the work environment is toxic or you are feeling defensive about being counseled?
    Good question! It is hard. My best judgement is not always in the thick of the situation, but later when I've gained a little distance and perspective, and am less emotional.

    It's not always all-or-nothing. It's possible to be treated unfairly and the tendency may be to use that as a reason not to look at your own performance and realize your own responsibility. It can be both.

    Toxic work situations include when:
    Favoritism rules and the manager allows it (usually a weak manager aligning with a dominant employee)
    There is blame but no resources to do the right thing (lose-lose)
    Lateral violence is tolerated
    Top-down violence is tolerated (doctors on nurses)
    There is no teamwork or trust between colleagues
    New grads are left to drown- just a few examples
    Unsafe practice is ignored

    Just a few examples
  9. by   canoehead
    The nursing discipline system sells us short. If one of my coworkers sees me do something, and is concerned enough to reports me, s/he should be available for me to clarify what was seen, and what needs to change. They should be ready to stand behind their words. More importantly, legally, if I am accused of an action, I have the right to confront my accuser. If someone slanders me at work, nursing employers take that right away, just so things don't get messy, complaints are easier to deal with? That's crap, I don't know why nursing as a profession puts up with it.
  10. by   Roz, RN
    My employer refused to identify my accuser because of the hospital's "confidentiality" policy. They wouldn't tell me how they conducted their "investigation" either. I was interested because none of my coworkers was asked what happened. Essentially, I was charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced in a 90 minute period
  11. by   sideshowstarlet
    Thanks, Nurse Beth! I think you are definitely onto something with your comment about toxic workplaces changing the way a nurse perceives even reasonable feedback.
  12. by   sideshowstarlet
    @ Canoehead and Roz: I think the facilities don't tell you who complained, because they don't want to open the accuser up to retaliation in case they are reporting an actual problem in good faith. Like anything else, this can be twisted in a bad environment.
  13. by   Kooky Korky
    Quote from Roz, RN
    My employer refused to identify my accuser because of the hospital's "confidentiality" policy. They wouldn't tell me how they conducted their "investigation" either. I was interested because none of my coworkers was asked what happened. Essentially, I was charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced in a 90 minute period
    You really don't know who was asked anything and who wasn't. A lot of coworkers would not admit that they were questioned, they don't want to get involved.

    Nurse Beth, as for the famous, "It has come to my attention BS" (sorry, but that's what it is when one is not allowed to know who made a c/o), it is just that - dung of a male bovine.

    Not saying you are wrong, Beth, about how to react during a counseling session, but a worker has the right to expect honesty and openness from preceptors and managers and, yes, even coworkers. Not that that guarantees we will ever get that.

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When You Receive a Warning at Work