HR Management

The Do’s and Don’ts of Workplace Documentation

As many of you know, proper documentation is critical in almost every aspect of managing your employees. In litigation, documentation can mean the difference between a defense verdict and a multimillion-dollar jury award.

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But don’t document just to document—poor documentation is often worse than no documentation at all. Instead, document with purpose. Here are my top five do’s and don’ts of documentation.

Do’s

Do establish clear performance expectations. Formal documentation should start with a clear statement of the company’s performance expectations for employees. Your statement of performance expectations will guide every aspect of your documentation and set the standards on which current deficiencies are noted and future performance will be measured.

It goes without saying that an employee shouldn’t be hearing about your performance expectations for the first time when you’re formally documenting a performance problem. If that’s the case, you have bigger problems than poor documentation. Performance expectations need to be consistent with the employee’s job description and the tasks she is actually assigned. Consistent, clear, and well-written performance expectations are critical if you want an employee to succeed and improve her performance.

Do focus on the facts. Provide the employee with a clear statement of the facts when you’re summarizing his misconduct or policy violation. A clear statement of facts focuses solely on what you know happened and doesn’t include any speculation or unverified information.

For purposes of taking disciplinary action, stating the fact that an employee reported to work two hours late is sufficient. You don’t need to include speculation that he was out drinking the night before because he has a weekly poker game at the local watering hole. Last night might have been the one night the employee missed the poker game to care for his sick child.

Do review patterns of problem behavior. When an employer takes the time to actually document a performance or behavior problem in writing, it’s typically not the first time the employee has had the problem. So instead of ignoring all the previous incidents, list in detail every time the employee has exhibited the problem behavior.

Be sure to include what steps you took each time the problems came to light. Did the supervisor talk to the employee? Was the employee reprimanded (formally or informally)? Was the employee warned or suspended? Include the pattern to show that you considered previous incidents when you took the current action.

Do write a specific plan. Include in your documentation a specific plan for the employee to follow for improvement. List the criteria the employee must meet, and include a time frame for meeting each expectation. The more specific and objective the criteria, the easier it is to measure improvement. Be sure to include in your documentation that the employee’s failure to meet the criteria will result in further disciplinary action, up to and including termination.

Do follow up. Documentation is valuable only if you follow up. For example, if you place an employee on a formal six-month corrective action plan but never follow up, the corrective action plan will be void. The best practice is to set specific performance criteria with specific time frames for meeting them, and undertake a formal review during those exact time frames. Put it on your calendar, and don’t delay!

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Don’ts

Don’t generalize. The most difficult cases to defend are those in which the employee was terminated for “not being a team player” or for any other clichéd reason. Such generalizations have no place in formal documentation. You must provide specific examples of problematic behavior. Fail to do so, and you may be left holding the bag.

Don’t diagnose why the employee is performing poorly. New lawyers are taught to focus on the what, when, where, and why when questioning witnesses. When you document poor performance, don’t diagnose the “why.” Even if you suspect the employee’s divorce, financial situation, or social life is affecting his performance, avoid the urge to put such a diagnosis in your formal documentation.

Understand that it’s entirely proper to offer employee assistance or other benefits to employees who have personal problems, but it isn’t appropriate to include references to those personal problems in your formal documentation.

Don’t include your mental impressions or editorial comments. Inexperienced supervisors often make the mistake of including their mental impressions in the performance documentation. What does that mean? Suppose an employee is written up for failing to follow her supervisor’s instructions. Instead of simply stating exactly what he told the employee, the supervisor will state something to the effect of “I thought my directions were clear.” If you have to editorialize about what was said, perhaps you weren’t as clear as you thought. State the facts, and avoid commenting on them.

Don’t embellish, stretch the truth, or call it something it isn’t. There’s nothing worse than when an employer overstates what took place. Minor embellishments tend to take on a life of their own, and they often become the driving force behind the disciplinary action when the truth was sufficient. Now you’re left defending a lie.

Worse yet, don’t call “dishonesty” a “fraud,” and don’t accuse an employee of “stealing” when he made a mistake. Call it as you see it and nothing more.

Don’t apologize. I cringe when I read a disciplinary document in which a supervisor says, “I am sorry I have to do this.” No, you’re not! You’re doing your job, and you’re documenting the incident because the employee isn’t doing his job. If you have to apologize for something, then formal documentation is obviously not warranted.

Practical Takeaway

Documentation is an important aspect of managing your relationships with your employees. However, you will be much better served if you shift your approach to documentation from quantity to quality. Trust me—you would much rather defend one or two well-written documents than 25 poorly written ones. So, go forward and document with purpose.

Jason Ritchie is a Partner with Ritchie Manning Kautz PLLP and an Editor of Montana Employment Law Letter. You can reach him at jritchie@ritchiemanning.com.