10 Sins of Employee Documentation

BLR editor Steve Bruce presents the 10 “sins” of employee documentation (with examples)– the 10 things that render documents related to employee performance and disciplinary actions unhelpful at best and damaging at worst.

SB: Document, document, document. It’s the HR mantra, and with good reason—bad documentation often leads to failures in court. Here are our “10 sins” of documentation, the 10 things that render documents unhelpful at best and damaging at worst.

Sin 1. Fails on the Basics

Many documentation problems arise because documents are unsigned, undated or illegible. Every piece of documentation your managers create should be signed —and it should be clear who signed it. It should be dated with the full date including the year–Otherwise, who knows whether it’s from 1998 or 2008?–and, obviously, unlike the example, documentation should be legible and free of extraneous marks and comments.

Remember that often the document won’t make an appearance in court until a few years after it was written. So it needs to stand on its own in case the writer is no longer with the company.

Sin 2. Created After the Fact

Documentation created at the time of the incident will usually be accepted as genuine. The longer the time from the incident to the documentation, however, the less genuine it will appear. In the example, it took until October to write up a July incident. Your suing employee’s attorney is going to ask: Why wasn’t this written up at the time of the incident? Something this important, important enough to fire someone over, and you waited 6 months to document it?

And, by the way, never backdate. You will be found out and that kills any hope of anyone believing anything in the document.

Sin 3. Appears Unprofessional and Unbusinesslike

The less professional the document looks, the less effect it will have. For instance, a document like this one that is sloppy, dirty, wrinkled; written on an envelope and a Post-it, and that uses casual phrasing will carry little weight.

Sin 4. Tainted by Inaccuracies

If any material fact on the document is wrong, that will taint the whole document. For example, wrong dates, wrong names, wrong addresses, wrong office, all can taint a document. In the example, obviously one of the dates is wrong—it isn‘t likely that the document was written 12 days before the incident—and so the document won’t hold up.

Sin 5. Too Vague to Count

Managers often avoid unpleasant harsh phrasing with the result that the document is too vague to be helpful. For example, “Talked to Jane about her behavior —Was that to tell her how good it was or how bad it was?

Or, “Martin, your work could be improved.” Is the work great and you’re encouraging him to make it a little better?

Or here’s an example of hedging: It would appear that Sally hasn’t mastered the new software. Again, this is too vague. Get specific. After 3 weeks of training, the rest of the team is using the software and making few mistakes; Sally made 11 mistakes today and didn’t finish the assignment. Her work had to be redone by a coworker.

Sin 6. Reaches Unsupportable Conclusions

Often managers will arrive at conclusions they can’t support. For example:

“Laurelreturned to work drunk.” Are you medically certified to make that determination? No, probably not, but you are qualified to report what you saw: When Laurel returned from lunch, she appeared disoriented, she stumbled, she slurred her words, she was abusive to the receptionist, and she smelled of alcohol.

Or, another example, “Terry is lazy.” This conclusion just doesn’t mean much—Be specific: The standard output is 12 units per day andSandyonly produces an average of four.

Sin 7. Tells White Lies

It’s always tempting for managers to avoid telling uncomfortable truths, so instead of saying “You are fired because your work is substandard” they say “You’re terminated for “budgetary reasons” or “your job has been eliminated.”

Guess what? People don’t like to be fired, and they won’t blame themselves. The ex-employee is going to discover that you hired a replacement and is going to sue for discrimination. You are now in a very tough position. Were you lying then or are you lying now? … It doesn’t matter–Your credibility is shot.

Sin 8. Uses Absolutes

Absolutes such as “never” and “always” are exaggerations that end up appearing as lies. For example, You’re always late, or, You never respond to requests.

The employee will say. I’m not always late, I was on time last Tuesday and Wednesday, and I do respond to requests–“I responded to your requests of July 10 and August 30.

So, “always” avoid absolutes. Give specific examples of the behavior that is inappropriate.

Sin 9. Contains “Stray” Markings and Notes

How about this resume? This interviewer made a quick note up in the corner as a reminder. Unfortunately, it’s going to be smoking gun evidence in a discrimination charge. And what does “AA” mean? All-American? African-American? Asian-American? Alcoholics Anonymous? We don’t know, but we do know that the applicant’s attorney is going to go to town with it.

Sin 10. Hints at Discrimination

Three often-used, but somewhat vague terms can be viewed as proxies for discrimination: “You have a bad attitude”—“You are not a team player”—“You don’t fit in here” If you must use these phrases, provide concrete examples of the inappropriate behavior.

So, there are the ten sins of documentation. Avoid them, and your documents will hold up in court … To help with documentation and with all your HR challenges, we recommend This is Steve Bruce for the HR Daily Advisor.