Before you hit the Send key, ask how it might sound to a jury. Is it:
- Readable? That is, is it easy to understand, legible, and well organized?
- Professional? Wobst cites the example of a CEO who couldn’t write a sentence without a four-letter word in it. (That ultimately cost the employer $2 million.)
- Concise? To the point without excessive elaboration?
- Correct for grammar and spelling? It’s embarrassing when college-educated managers send materials full of mistakes, says Wobst.
Wobst, who is a partner with Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur LLP in Columbus, Ohio, made his suggestions at the Advanced Employment Issues Symposium, held recently in Las Vegas.
General Guidelines for All Documentation
The old adage stands, says Wobst: If it is not documented, it did not happen. Every pertinent finding, every negative finding, every action taken exists only if documented properly. Wobst has seen too many cases in which there is a well-written summary that leaves out a critical fact. That document will be easily destroyed by a good litigator.
Another scenario he has seen is when supervisors’ files are handed down to the next supervisor. Eventually, there’s no indication of who wrote the document, and that kills the document.
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Another common error in documentation is the lack of descriptive information to support statements contained in the document. Documents should:
- Identify the author of the document.
- State the date the document was created and, if different, the date of the incident, concern, or discussion.
- List project assignments and deadlines met or not met.
- Contain the supervisor’s or manager’s assessment of the quality of an employee’s work. Cite attempts that have been made to help the employee improve.
- Contains facts—the who, what, where, when, and how—as opposed to speculation or opinions. Exception: Complaints need to be documented, even if they haven’t been substantiated.
Vague, conclusory phrases like “bad attitude” or “too many tardies” do not help managers or employees zero in on problems or solutions and usually aren’t helpful in litigation. If the employee’s bad attitude surfaces with disruption of meetings or failure to carry out his or her share of unpleasant shared tasks, say so. If the problem is tardiness, document the dates of the tardies and time of arrival.
If the problem is a harassment allegation, state the nature of the alleged harassment. (Don’t just write, “Mary complained today that Tom harassed her again.”)
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Include references to any previous discussions/counseling/warnings regarding the same issue, especially if the earlier communications weren’t documented when they occurred.
Record employee responses to problems and questions. Also include the employee’s positive contributions to the work effort.
Finally, says Wobst, be sure your writing would pass the “newspaper” test—that is, would you be comfortable seeing your document on the front page of your hometown newspaper?
In tomorrow’s Advisor, nine things that you shouldn’t include in your documentation, plus an introduction to Employee Compensation in Your State].