A Management Must: Document, Document, Document

One of the best things you can do for your company and your employees is to provide honest, documented feedback to the people who work for you. It’s important for at least two reasons: one, you help employees to personally improve and two, you help your company to receive the best performance a person has to give.

But it is also important to document for legal purposes, should you need to provide information in case of an unfortunate lawsuit. But while you want to be thorough in documenting behavior for record-keeping purposes, the sole purpose should be to provide feedback to better the employee.

When a subordinate’s performance is not meeting expectations, the first time you bring it up to that person, have a verbal conversation. But document the verbal discussion somewhere. Tuck it away in case down the road you need to give a formal written documentation to the said employee; you will want to reference the verbal.

When you need to write of an incident, here are some helpful tips for documentation:

1. Write the documentation as a memo addressed to the particular employee. Include the current date and title it as “job performance.”

2. The feedback should be written thoroughly. As an HR Consultant, I tell managers to write the documentation assuming the papers will end up in court while they’re out of the country and won’t be able to clarify any of the details. (True story, actually; I learned this lesson the hard way. I had a manager write up an employee and eventually terminate the person. During the unemployment hearing, the manager was in Europe on vacation and the write-up, being so vague, needed much explanation. So now I tell people “write the documentation like you’ll be in Europe.”)

3. It is important to keep it fact-oriented; personal feelings shouldn’t enter. Be precise with specific dates, times, other people involved, etc. If a specific company policy was violated, write out the policy and what particular action taken by the employee was in violation. If the company lost money because of an incident, write how much the financial loss was due to the action (or inaction) on the employee’s part.

4. Bullet point the issue(s). Then elaborate on each bullet point. Make it as clear as possible.

5. Every time you talk with an employee about a particular issue, it should be documented somewhere. It doesn’t need to be a formal write-up; have a verbal coaching session and keep the information logged in a notebook. But when it comes time to do the formal write-up, as we are reviewing here, you will be able to include other dates and times that conversations have taken place about the same issue(s). This also helps clarify to the employee that you are noting her behavior, and you’re reminding her that there has been more than one instance; also should it ever proceed to court, you’re alerting jurors that you didn’t just start writing someone up — you had verbal conversations first.

Should you decide to terminate the employee’s position, you have built your case through documentation and written record keeping. I once terminated an employee for being two minutes late to work. That statement alone sounds pretty harsh. However, I had kept records of every time I had a verbal conversation with the employee about her tardiness. Then when it turned to written documentation, I wrote all the date and times of the conversations into the formal write-up with the list of the dates and times she was tardy. On the second written document, I wrote the date of the first written document. I won the case because I had shown that there was an extensive track record of tardiness. That two minutes was relative in a long list of conversations and tardies.

6. State in what time period you need to see improvement. While it is natural to say you want improvement within 30, 60 or 90 days … what you actually want to write is “Immediate and consistent.” Otherwise, it is almost as if you’re giving the employee another 29 days to be “mediocre” because technically, you did give them 30 days to straighten up. You want immediate improvement and you want it to be consistent. You can tell them you will re-review them in 30, 60 or 90 days with a written document (and then be sure to follow-up), but the behavior itself — that needs to improve right away.

7. State the consequences of what will happen should the employee not correct the behavior. Standard terminology is, “… will result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination.” Most professionals don’t recommend termination (unless for stealing, ethical violations, dishonesty, etc.) without three formal written documents. If this is the 2nd or 3rd written documentation and you want to be able to terminate next go-round, write as a consequence: “should the behavior happen again, termination may occur.” Now, I know you’d love to write: “will occur” … but don’t back yourself into a corner. Maybe that gal that is always late is tardy one day and her last write-up said, “next time you will be terminated.” But what if she’s late due to a true emergency. Well, you’re probably not going to fire her, so you’ll let it slide. But now suddenly, you’ve opened the can to say, “will” may not always mean “will.” So what about the next time? Play it safe, and use the words “can” or “may” … you’ll still be able to terminate (and keep credibility).

8. The employee should sign the document. If she doesn’t want to sign it, ask her to write that she doesn’t want to sign it. That’s what we call a little HR trick. Should the matter end up in court, you will want to prove that she saw this write up. And if she signs, well that’s easy. But if she doesn’t sign, that becomes a little muddy. But if she is signing that she doesn’t want to sign, well, you get the drift …

9. Have the employee write for herself how she will correct the behavior. The employee that is always late … don’t just let her write that she will “be on time.” She needs to write what she will do to be on time. Will she make different arrangements to get up earlier, to leave earlier for work, etc. Obviously you can’t monitor that, but it is more about getting the employee to recognize ownership to fix the problem.

One last little tip I give to managers: don’t edit your first draft. Sit down and write everything you want to write about the employee. Let it all spill out. Then go back and edit. This is best for a couple of reasons: usually when you write someone up, you do have emotion running through you. If you first write and let it all out, then when you edit, the emotion isn’t hindering getting the facts onto paper. Also, you can then go back with a clear head the next day and add any missing facts.

When delivering any kind of coaching, feedback, documentation, performance appraisal, the ultimate goal is to bring to the employee’s attention a behavior that is keeping her from achieving complete success. This is a kind process. Yes, you may be frustrated, but it is ultimately to help the employee, which thus helps the business. So when talking with employees about this, I recommend (and have found it to be quite successful) to sit with the employee without any barriers between you. Don’t sit with a desk or table in between you. Sit on the same side of a desk and be a partner with that person.

I was given this advice many years ago and now do this often — especially after one manager told me that it made all the difference. Her performance wasn’t up to par. I came from around my desk, sat on the same side, delivered some bad news about her performance, asked her to improve and we came up with solutions together. Months later, after she was back on track, she confided that it felt less disciplinary and more coaching due to the way we sat together to work on her performance. She is now a several-time promoted manager in the company doing quite well.

All of this formal documentation process refers to the basics of job performance. If there is an allegation about harassment or other violation, an investigation needs to occur first before giving documentation. While most states are “employ at-will,” meaning you can terminate anyone at any time, it is best to have the back up of written documentation. Documentation also allows you to fight unemployment monies, if your state allows you to, should that be something you want to pursue. And, even with “at-will” status, employees can still file “unlawful termination,” so it is best to protect yourself with a paper trail. Proper documentation goes a long way …

Ultimately, if you think it is a dicey situation: i.e., you’re firing without proper documentation, you’re firing someone of a protected race, class, age group, etc. or you just have questions, use caution and consult a lawyer. This is not meant to substitute for legal advice.


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