Formal vs Informal – What does this mean in Human Resources?

Sometimes the terms that are used in HR can sound like an alien language. Likewise, other terms that we use in day-to-day life might have alternative meanings when it comes to people management.

Typically at Manager and Team Leader level, it is important to maintain a good general knowledge of these HR Terms. So, when you are discussing them with your HR Team, everyone maintains a common understanding and communication remains effective.

An example of some terms which we often find misunderstood in HR are the words Formal and Informal. This blog looks at what they mean from a resource/people management perspective.

‘Formal’ vs ‘Informal’

The terms Formal and Informal in day-to-day use are oftentimes used to refer to the dress code or style of an event. Similarly, in business, meetings can be formal or informal, depending on the style. In HR, however, we use these terms to refer to how an issue is dealt with, generally when applying a grievance or disciplinary procedure.

Formal action usually means the process is a lot more strict, or the outcome may be more severe. Whereas informal is a less strict approach and oftentimes a much softer approach to an outcome being applied.

How do we decide whether to act Formally or Informally?

This is usually determined by reviewing the following;

  1. The incident or issue itself – what level of misconduct are we looking at?
  2. The broader impact – were there other people involved, was there potential threats as a result of this conduct to another team member, company property or the business?
  3. Is this a recurring or an isolated incident – have we had to address something with this team member in the past or is this a once off incident?

Take the following example;

The employee has engaged in an act of insubordination. They refused orders from their Line Manager to complete a basic task, which was deemed reasonable. The team member argued that the duty presented was not in their job description. There were other team members present, but nobody was directly involved in the disagreement other than the team member and the Line Manager. An incident like this has taken place on one previous occasion, but it was not addressed at that point either formally or informally.

Let’s review the facts here –

  1. There is insubordination, whereby the team member refuses to complete a reasonable instruction.
  2. It would be deemed misconduct – the orders were basic and reasonable and were not completed.
  3. The overall impact was low – the task was basic and did not pose any risks to Health and Safety, to other team members or to the company, although others were present.
  4. This is not an isolated incident. This has happened previously, but failed to be addressed at that point.

Formal Processes

Formal processes are usually applied to more serious incidents or issues arising, such as an act of misconduct or more serious gross misconduct. This is usually because the issue being addressed caused, or had the potential to cause serious implications or consequences for the business or people involved.

As a result, the reference to a ‘formal’ process is most commonly heard when applying a Grievance or Disciplinary Procedure. Formal processes often require a greater deal of written communication and record-keeping, and oftentimes warrant a written warning within an employee file.

Informal Processes

For the Team Member, the use of the word informal sometimes seems less serious, this, in turn, reduces the level of concern for the matter being discussed. In fact, sometimes an informal approach may be taken to address a serious matter, depending on other factors impacting the situation. For example, if the employee involved has never had engaged in misconduct over a long period of service, or if there are extenuating circumstances contributing to the matter.

Informal processes require less written communication, and really only ever warrant a follow-up communication as a record of the informal process, but is nonetheless essential in ensuring best practice.

So – Formal or Informal in this instance?

From the review of the example above, and having looked at the meanings of Formal and Informal Processes, generally, we would take the route of an informal process. An act of insubordination can sometimes justify formal action. However, in this instance, we need to consider the fact that the conduct of the team member did not pose a threat to the company or other team members, and while a similar form of misconduct has taken place in the past, it was not addressed. Therefore we have no evidence to back up the fact that this is a recurring issue. Another important thing to note is that other team members witnessed the incident, and therefore you want to ensure that an example is set through taking action, making known that such behaviour or conduct will not be accepted.

Applying the informal process in this instance would require a meeting between the Manager and Team member. In this meeting, the team members conduct is highlighted and addressed, and potential future consequences are clearly explained. The team member should also be notified that while this is an informal meeting, they will receive an email or letter detailing what was discussed during the meeting for their reference. This will also remain on their file for the appropriate duration.

The email or letter should be drafted after the meeting and sent to the team member as soon as possible, and then filed on their personnel file for future reference should it be needed.

What to Take Away?

The key thing to remember with both Formal and Informal processes – there should always be a written record of any formal or informal process within an Organisation. Formal processes will have written communication throughout. Informal processes will have written communication on the conclusion, safeguarding the business in any future instances requiring further implementation of processes.

Regardless of whether you are applying a Formal or an Informal approach, it should be taken seriously by both the Manager applying the process and the team member in question. At the end of the day you are applying a policy or procedure that has been created to prevent issues at work.

If you feel you need assistance with any of the matters raised in this blog just reach out and let us know!  

This blog was brought to you by Aoife Hanlon, HR Executive with Corporate HR Ireland. Aoife can be reached by Email:

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