HR Policies & Procedures

Special from SHRM 2017: Your Documentation Will Be Exhibit A at Trial

To train your managers on the importance of documentation, says attorney Allison West, tell them to imagine their documentation in front of a jury on a placard the size of New Jersey.

West, who is SHRM-SCP and SPHR certified, is principal of Employment Practices Specialists. She offered her tips to 500 appreciative HR managers at the SHRM Annual Conference and Exposition, held recently in New Orleans.

Proper documentation, West says, does the following:

  • Creates credibility
  • Shows consistency of treatment of employees
  • Serves as critical evidence if a legal claim arises
  • Will be exhibit A at trial

Documentation Pitfalls

West offers the following typical problems with documentation:

  • It contains little or no evidence to support decisions to discipline or terminate
  • It is ambiguous or unclear
  • It does not give employee appropriate notice
  • It contains personal attacks and subjective comments

Documentation Dos

  • Create contemporaneous documents (and never back date documents)
  • Include full date including year
  • Include employee’s full name at least once (after that, initials or first name can be used)
  • Use professional tone
  • Avoid any statement that might indicate bias

Use clean paper (West offered one judge a document with a prominent coffee stain—the judge asked scornfully if it was “cafe mocha.”)

If possible, obtain employee’s signature even if just to indicate that employee disagrees.


West suggests that documenters avoid:

  • Personal opinions, accusations, or judgments
  • Generalities and exaggerations
  • Conclusions not supported by facts
  • Legal conclusions

Also, unless you can include supporting detail, avoid vague words like:

  • Weaknesses
  • Shortcomings
  • Inadequate
  • Failure, failing, fail
  • It appears
  • Insubordinate

Finally, avoid absolute expressions (unless completely accurate) such as:

  • Always
  • Never
  • Every time
  • Invariably

If the employee can find one exception, you lose credibility. For example, if you state, “Steve is always late,” and Steve can point to days he wasn’t late, you’ve lost your credibility.