Reprimands in the 21st Century

Reprimands are as old as federal HR itself. The author proposes some changes that could bring the disciplinary process into the 21st century.

Where did all those typists go?

I’ve been reading and watching news commemorating the 50th anniversaries of the moon landing, Woodstock, and similar events from my teen years. In this article, I want to remind readers that Federal HR is still living in that era. 

It was a time when government offices were heavily populated with Clerks and Secretaries whose in-office technology consisted of electric typewriters – a significant improvement over the manual machine I took to college. Manila folders, string-and-button envelopes, and banks of 4-drawer metal file cabinets dominated the white-collar landscape.

When I began my abbreviated Federal career, a coworker asked me if I could type. I answered affirmatively and was advised not to let leadership know that. “If you can’t type,” he advised me, “you’re more likely to move up into higher paying jobs.” Armies of clerks, typists, secretaries and assistants did all the typing. HR’s written warnings, cautions, counselings, and reprimands are a reflection of a Federal government from before my day. 

Disciplinary memos presume that typed documents have significant impact on employees… simply because they’re typed. Today, a memo admonishing an employee regarding misconduct does not carry the impact it may have had back in the day. The world has changed. HR hasn’t. 

What’s a reprimand anyway?

In this article I want to consider the reprimand. From agency to agency it is known as a Letter of Reprimand, Official Reprimand, or Written Reprimand. Its origin is unclear to me. All I know is that it was in use 20 years prior to my entering Federal personnel in 1980.

Here’s a curious fact: there’s nothing in Federal law or the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) mentioning terms like reprimands, warnings and cautions. They are practices that have been handed down from generation to generation, seemingly without question or examination. Absent any requirement for their use, any Federal agency could move away from reprimands anytime their leadership were to imagine an alternative, notice to (and likely bargaining with) unions notwithstanding. 

As every employee relations newbie knows, reprimands differ from written warnings, cautions, and admonishments in that HR considers them to be “formal” discipline. Someone who doesn’t work in HR might ask, “How is ‘formal’ differentiated from ‘informal’? Formal actions may be included in your Official Personnel Folder (OPF – now E-OPF, as it’s kept electronically). In the case of a reprimand,,, temporarily.

Now you see it, now you don’t

As neither laws nor the CFR) mention reprimands, if follows that there has never been a requirement to expunge such documents. Most of my agency clients retain reprimands in an employee’s E-OPF from 1 to 3 years depending on that agency’s regulations. Once that retention period has expired, all copies of (and references to) said reprimand are to be expunged.

A reasonable person might ask, “Why expunge reprimands?” We retain most memos on our computers indefinitely. Why should these memos be different? “Because we’ve always done it” is the only rationale HR can offer in response. Anyone who remembers the origins of such expungement policies/practices is likely in a retirement home or beyond this mortal world. It might interest some to know that, when teaching a seminar for a US District Court, I learned they retain reprimands for 7 years.

If HR insists on perpetuating reprimands in the 21st century, these memos should be treated in a fashion similar to awards. The older the action becomes, the less relevant it is to current considerations. If someone looking for a promotion touts a cash award from 8 years ago, the selecting official should be wondering what recognition has been offered up since then. Reprimands, warnings, cautions, etc. should be no different. They grow old, but needn’t be expunged. 

A 5 year-old reprimand for telling offensive jokes should remain relevant as prior discipline if the same employee is caught doing something similar today. (HR folks, I know all about sneaking an expunged reprimand into a hearing as a “notice/warning” but that assumes we must expunge. Who says we must, other than predecessors long retired?) Expunged reprimands have always been an issue for HR specialists when dealing with repeat offenders, but only because their agency hasn’t changed policy.

Readers should also consider for a moment that most of us have never received a reprimand. If someone’s behavior warrants a reprimand, that document needn’t be deleted before it has a chance to grow stale. Such a policy change could be initiated in your agency today as I see it.

HR plays DA

There’s more to be said on how reprimands are composed. They commonly follow a 4-paragraph format. Paragraph 1: This is what you did. Paragraph 2: This is why what you did is wrong. Makes sense so far.

Paragraph 3 is, for those outside the world of Labor and Employee Relations, kind of weird. Back in the day, my Paragraph 3 began with this; “Based on the aforementioned, you are hereby charged with… Such a charge might be “Leaving the job site without permission” or “Possession of drug paraphernalia while on duty” or “Failure to follow instructions” or “Disrespectful conduct” or…

Why do reprimands include formal “charges” that may later have to be proven to an arbitrator or administrative judge? Moreover, why are HR specialists, most of whom lack law degrees, framing such charges? Again, just because HR has always formatted them in this manner. All that’s needed would be the phrase “inappropriate conduct” or “inappropriate behavior”. That would be simpler than specifications that must then be defended.

As for an agency table of penalties setting forth such “charges”, I addressed that should-have-been-gone-long-ago document in an earlier article. Suffice it to say that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has discarded their table. Why hasn’t your agency?

Inviting a fight

There remains a Paragraph 4 in a standard reprimand. That paragraph advises the employee to avoid future misconduct, as penalties are likely to escalate – the essence of “progressive discipline”. It goes on to tell the offending employee that a copy of the reprimand will go into the E-OPF for 1-3 years depending on agency policy and/or negotiated procedures, as mentioned above. 

Paragraph 4 goes on to tell the employee how they can litigate the memo, by grievance and/or discrimination complaint. Huh?! Not only are we unnecessarily formalizing a memo that will be expunged, but we’re increasing their cost tenfold by inviting employees to fight them… in the very document that is supposed to be corrective.

Grievances and EEO complaints inevitably escalate to the attention of senior managers. Reprimands simply don’t warrant such an investment of time at such levels of leadership… yet invite employees to file. Why include such language? I assume you can guess the answer by now. If no questions are asked of or within HR, none are answered.

Can we talk about this?

Courts have said that employees guilty of offending behavior, should be on “clear notice”, although that’s not always the case (i.e. you don’t have to tell employees, “Don’t hit each other.”) Clear notice, however, could be a well-documented verbal counseling/warning. 

There are several reasons why I advocate for oral warnings, delivered by supervisors and documented in the employee’s presence, in lieu of reprimands. 

  1. Face-to-face confrontations may have more impact in the 21st century than memos; 
  2. There are no formal “charges” to prove before a third party; 
  3. Notes created by a supervisor at the time of a verbal encounter reflect clear notice in genuine first-party terms and language; 
  4. Such notes don’t have expiration or expungement requirements; 
  5. Memorializing a lecture wouldn’t result in excessive costs of involving HR in composing a formal document;
  6. More senior levels of review might be avoided;
  7. As parents know, discipline is more effective when delivered soon after the offending event is discovered. Involving HR dramatically slows down the disciplinary process; 
  8. If a supervisors make omissions or mistakes in their notes regarding a scolding/lecture, they can simply call the employee back in, correct the record, and document the additional information or correction.

Raise derriere. Remove hands

Worrying about the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a constant in Federal employee relations. It can also be an excuse to “do what we’ve always done.” Most discipline never reaches removal or the Board. Moreover, that should be our anticipation. The very idea of progressive discipline is to change behavior in lieu of firing the employee. 

Simply documenting “I told you once. I told you twice…” is the norm in 21st century HR outside of government. It could be our norm as well, relegating a long era of formal specialist-prepared reprimands to history. As an added bonus, you can push disciplinary actions down the chain of command to supervisors whose documentation of verbal cautions can be easily reviewed by a specialist to ensure the employee is on clear notice.

If reprimands are to be reconsidered, the ball must begin rolling somewhere. Chief Human Capital Officers, are you listening? You can initiate changes to your agency’s disciplinary directives. If willing to do so, you could boldly imagine a system that works with convenience, fairness, and effectiveness. Of course, laws must be followed, but longstanding practices like reprimands and tables of penalties can (and should) be re-examined.

Next up – suspensions.

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to