What is a “warning letter” in German labour law?

Warning letter

An employer in Germany can use a warning letter to “admonish” the employee if they have breached an obligation under the employment contract. A warning does not require a specific form and can be issued in writing, verbally or using a notice. The warning has both a warning and a notice function about a subsequent dismissal. The aim of the warning is therefore to allow the employee to change their behaviour and avoid future violations.

What is a “warning letter” (Abmahnung)?

In German labour law, a warning is an instrument for employers to point out alleged misconduct to employees. For the warning to be effective, the employer must clearly and seriously admonish the employee. The alleged misconduct that is to be changed or refrained from in the future must be described clearly and precisely. This is intended to warn the employee clearly and unambiguously on the one hand and to point out the specific behaviour that the employee will not accept on the other. In addition, the consequences under labour law must be explained and a reasonable deadline for improvement must be set. In the event of repeated warnings for the same misconduct, a warning can also serve as the basis for termination of the employment contract.

Employees should respond to a warning in writing and, if necessary, seek legal advice in order to protect their rights. It is important that both employers and employees observe the legal requirements and deadlines in connection with a warning letter in order to avoid legal disputes.

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Reasons for a warning: When can a warning be issued by the employer?

  1. In labour law, a warning is an important instrument for employers to point out alleged misconduct to employees. But when is a warning justified? Read some examples here:
  2. Breaches of contract: A warning may be issued if the employee breaches contractual obligations, e.g. unexcused absences or lateness.
  3. Poor work performance: Poor performance or repeatedly ignoring instructions can lead to a warning.
  4. Violations of company regulations: If the employee violates company regulations, e.g. smoking ban or dress code, this can result in a warning.
  5. Bullying: Bullying or harassment of other employees are also grounds for a warning.
  6. Data protection violations: In the event of breaches of data protection regulations, such as the disclosure of confidential information, the employer can issue a warning.

Form and content of the warning letter in labour law: What must a warning letter look like?

Employers are usually unfamiliar with the law. This is why it often happens that warnings do not fulfil the form and content requirements and are therefore ineffective. Here you can read which requirements a warning letter must fulfil in terms of form and content.

The form of the warning letter
There is no prescribed form for warnings. They can therefore be issued in writing or verbally. In practice, however, a written warning is more suitable. The document makes it easier to provide evidence in any subsequent legal proceedings.

Content of the warning
Specific description of the misconduct: The warning letter must describe the employee’s misconduct in detail. Vague or general formulations are insufficient.
Request to change behaviour: The warning must make it clear that the employee should change their behaviour in future.
Reference to consequences under labour law: The employee should be informed that if the (alleged) misconduct is repeated, there is a threat of measures under labour law, e.g. dismissal.
The content of the warning is therefore very important for its effectiveness. The content of the warning is therefore a good starting point for defending yourself against the warning. However, it is advisable to seek help from a specialist labour law attorney who can assess whether the warning is effective or not.

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Consequences of a warning in labour law

A warning letter under labour law is a serious signal from the employer that something is wrong with your working behaviour. But what consequences can this have?

First of all, a warning is a “blessing in disguise”. This is because if the employer issues a warning about an employee’s behaviour, it is no longer possible to dismiss the employee on the grounds of this behaviour. By deciding to issue a warning, the employer makes it clear to the employee that it only intends to take action under labour law in the event of further misconduct and that it will not dismiss the employee in the case in question. The facts of the case are therefore “used up” as a result of the warning.

A warning can nevertheless make it easier to dismiss an employee. If a warning is unsuccessful and the employee repeats their misconduct, this will often justify a dismissal. It is important that the warned behaviour is actually repeated. The new incorrect behaviour does not have to be identical to the warned behaviour. It is sufficient if the warned behaviour and the behaviour on the basis of which the dismissal is to be pronounced are comparable. This is the case, for example, if the employee has been warned for arriving late at work and leaving early and is then to be dismissed for playing cards during working hours.

Another consequence of the warning is that it is regularly added to the employee’s personnel file.

Conclusion: A warning should be taken seriously in order to avoid negative consequences. A change in behaviour is the key to solving the problem and avoiding further warnings or even dismissal.

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Employee reaction: What should you do if you have received a warning letter?

Anyone can receive a warning under labour law. But don’t panic, we’ll show you how to react correctly.

  • Keep calm: Don’t jump to conclusions and keep a cool head to look at the facts objectively.
  • Check the reason for the warning: Analyse the reason for the warning letter and whether it is justified.
  • Seek legal advice: If you are unsure or unclear, you should seek legal help, e.g. from an employment lawyer.
  • Make a statement: Submit a written statement in which you state your position and, if necessary, reject the warning. Legal advice is also important here.
  • Seek an appraisal interview: Talk to your line manager or the HR department to clarify the misunderstanding or find a solution.

Conclusion: A warning letter in labour law is unpleasant, but with the right reaction you can strengthen your position and avoid further consequences.

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Termination after a warning: What options do you have?

As you have read, a warning is a serious matter in labour law. A repetition of the warned behaviour or comparable behaviour can lead to termination of the employment contract. In this blog post, you will find out what options you have after a termination due to a warning.

  • Obtain legal advice: After a dismissal, it is advisable to seek advice from a specialist employment lawyer to check your rights and claims.
  • Check an action for unfair dismissal: Have a lawyer check whether an action for protection against dismissal makes sense. A successful dismissal protection action will render the dismissal invalid.
  • Seek an out-of-court settlement: An amicable solution with the employer, e.g. a severance payment or cancellation of the dismissal, can be a good option in some cases.
  • Apply for unemployment benefit: Register as unemployed immediately and apply for unemployment benefit to receive financial support.

Conclusion: After a termination due to behaviour that has already been warned, it is important to act quickly and check your options in order to protect your rights and claims.

Warning letter labour law – prevention and tips

  • A warning letter under labour law is unpleasant for employees and can have consequences. Here are some tips to prevent a warning:
  • Know your work duties: Be aware of your duties and responsibilities in the employment relationship. Read your employment contract and find out about company regulations.
  • Communication: Speak openly about problems or ambiguities with your line manager or colleagues. Clarify misunderstandings and ensure transparency.
  • Punctuality: Pay attention to your working hours and adhere to break regulations. Punctuality is a sign of reliability and respect.
  • Quality of work: Perform your work conscientiously and carefully. Observe legal and company regulations.
  • Further training: Develop your skills to perform your tasks better and minimise potential sources of error.

Conclusion: Through self-reflection, communication and continuous improvement, you can minimise the risk of a warning letter under employment law.

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Conclusion: Summary of the most important points and recommendations for action

In this article, we have looked at the warning letter in labour law. The most important points are summarised as follows:

  • With a warning letter, the employer draws the employee’s attention to misconduct and demands an improvement.
  • Common reasons for warnings are lateness, unexcused absences, or breaches of work instructions.
  • If the warning is justified, the employee should not repeat the misconduct to avoid possible consequences such as dismissal.
  • An unjustified warning can be contested, for example by lodging an objection or taking legal action before the labor court.
  • It is advisable to seek legal advice on warnings so that you are aware of your rights and obligations.

Recommendations for action:

  • Take warnings seriously and reflect on your behaviour.
  • Seek dialogue with your employer to clarify any misunderstandings.
  • If you are unsure or have questions about warnings, seek legal advice.
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All information on our website is of an editorial nature and expressly does not constitute legal advice. Naturally, we have made every effort to ensure the accuracy of the information and links contained on this website. Nevertheless, we cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information. It is in no way a substitute for legal advice from a lawyer.