HR Management & Compliance

Special from SHRM 2017: Seven Steps to Creating Bulletproof Documentation

Here’s typical documentation, says attorney Allison West: “I talked to Steve about what you wanted me to, and it went well.” This fails in so many ways, says West (No date, no issue, which Steve, no result, and so on.) Today we’ll hear more from West on documentation.

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

Document, Document, Document

You have to say it three times, says West, to emphasize its importance. Here are West’s seven bulletproof rules:

Bulletproof Rule #1:

Make Sure Expectations Are Known

Get expectations from performance standards, job description, goals, mission statement and code of conduct, handbook, and policies and procedures such as ethics policy or attendance policy.

Poor documentation: Show up on time.

Better documentation: Your job begins at 8:00 am at which time you should be at your desk ready to answer client calls.

Bulletproof Rule #2:

Describe The Behavior or Performance That Must Change (or That You Want to Continue)

When documenting this:

  • Describe the conduct, not the individual
  • Keep observations job-related and use objective criteria
  • Be specific with detailed examples
  • Describe the impact on others, both positive and negative (Guilt works, says West. For example, When you are late, accounting has to answer your phone lines.

Bulletproof Rule #3:

Include The Employee’s Explanation

give the employee a chance to explain why expectations are not being met, says West. This shows fairness, but you may also find that it’s not the employee’s fault.

West tells of a manager who was a stickler for punctuality. An employee transferred into his office and was late the first three days. The manager wanted to fire her, but HR suggested he talk to the new employee. It turned out she was coming in early to train the employee who had replaced her.

Getting the explanation also ties the employee to his or her “story,” says West.

Bulletproof Rule #4:

Detail The Action Plan and Goals

Detail steps employee will take to improve the unacceptable performance or conduct. This may be viewed as a precursor to a performance improvement plan. It’s not as detailed, but should still be specific.

Also state what the manager or supervisor will be doing to help the employee to improve.

Write up as an agreement: We agree that you will …

Bulletproof Rule #5:

Include The Time Expectations for Correcting Behavior or Performance

Avoid phrases like

“We expect you to turn things around immediately.” (Vague slang.)

“Your performance must improve right away.” (Not specific enough.)

“I’ll be watching you and will let you know if things improve to my satisfaction.” (Sounds like stalking.)

Be realistic when setting these goals.
Also, remember that if you include an exact time frame, e.g. 30 days, you must follow up.

Example:  We expect you to arrive at 8:00 am beginning tomorrow, June 21, 2017.

Bulletproof Rule #6:

The Follow-Up

If you don’t follow up, employees will assume that they are fine, so follow-up is critical to documentation and fairness, West says.

State what will happen when you follow up and what part of the performance you will be reviewing. Also include:

  • Specific improvements expected
  • Any additional training
  • Further discipline


  • Please know that we will periodically follow-up on …
  • Please contact me after you have made 5 cold calls.
  • Please send me a draft of the report two days before the deadline.

Note: also document what happened when you followed up

Bulletproof Rule #7:

Describe The Consequences if the Behavior or Poor Performance Continues

In describing consequences, avoid vague threats such as:

  • You know what will happen if you don’t turn things around.”
  • Remember what happened to Bob…”
  • The end may not be that far for you if we don’t see an improvement.”
  • Think about updating your resume.
  • Your days are numbered.”

Instead, clearly state what happens if performance or behavior does not improve, for example, discipline, demotion, no promotion, additional training, etc.

When necessary, says West, include the “magic language”:

You may be subject to further discipline, up to and including termination.


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