Guidelines for employee documentation

By Carole Daily

Have you ever tried to fix something and didn’t have the right tool? You can try and improvise, but eventually you end up spending a lot of extra time and money to finish the job because you started unprepared and without the right tool. The same is true if you are involved in any type of legal proceedings with employees. If you don’t invest time and effort on proper employee documentation to begin with, you could be spending countless hours and thousands in legal fees after the fact. Proper documentation is one of the most important tools in an employment relationship.

Proper documentation is quite simply a requirement in today’s litigious society. Most Human Resources professionals will tell you that merely “recalling” generalities of discussions or incidents are literally, “Worth the paper they ARE NOT written on.” In legal circles, most attorneys would prefer one page of supporting documentation than 10,000 words of testimony. This is because many times lawsuits may not come to trial for several months or even years after an incident has occurred. By then important details about what has happened may be forgotten or the memories of individuals can be discounted in the absence of supporting documentation. Occurrences in the employee relationship, positive and negative, need to be properly documented to help authenticate the occurrence, ensure integrity of the details of the occurrence, and complete a reliable picture of the employment relationship over time.

Guidelines for writing documentation

When writing our final drafts of documentation, we need to keep the Guidelines for Employee DOCUMENTATION in mind:

D- Document facts, not opinions

O- Observations are documented

C- Consistent

U- Use proper grammar

M- Measurable goals and standards

E- Eliminate document “invalidators”

N- Note progressive discipline

T- Truth/accurate

Document Facts, Not Opinions. “Facts, just the facts.” Focus on the, “Who, what, where, when, and how’s” of the occurrence. Who was involved? What was discussed? Where did it take place? When did it take place (making sure to include the time and date, including year). How did this occur? Also when documenting we need to keep in mind the “audience” that may be reading this information one day; notes you may be making just for yourself or an employee’s file may one day be read/used by someone completely outside of your department. This “audience” can include future supervisors (in cases of employee transfer/promotions), HR departments, government agencies (i.e., unemployment claims), or possibly even attorneys or legal forums (i.e., discrimination cases). Make your documentation as fact-based as possible.

Observations are documented. Observations can be so important in conveying what was actually happening/occurring vs. imposing an “educated guess.” Instead of saying, “The employee was drunk at work,” provide the observations that made you suspect this to be true: “The employee was walking/stumbling into things, was using slurred speech, and was witnessed by two other employees (give the names), drinking beer at lunch. “ Even though your suspicion is that the employee was drunk or at least drinking, without your personally witnessing this or the employee taking a breathalyzer; you cannot swear this to be true. Let your observations establish the case.

Consistent. Consistency is key; by investing a little time each week or every other week to update employment performance notes, supervisors can save huge amounts of time when having to compile information for probationary or annual performance reviews. Sadly, most annual performance evaluations end up being based on performance the weeks directly before the evaluation; but what about the other 10-11 months of the year? Notations/documentation statements regarding performance (positives and negatives), with dated references and specific examples of where the employee has met or exceeded goals or areas of concern will show a more accurate picture of the employee’s entire year of performance.

Another side to the “consistent” factor is to make sure you are not just keeping documentation on the “poor performer” but the entire staff. Documenting the successes of your excellent performers and being able to account for those in their formal evaluations not only shows the employee that you acknowledge and are proud of their accomplishments, but perhaps your documented notes can be used to justify raises or promotions for these employees in the future. In addition, you do not want to appear focused on the performance of just one employee; especially if this employee may fall into a protected group.

Use proper grammar. Again with the premise that the “audience” reading the documentation could be from HR, government agency, or even legal personnel, you want the documentation to look professional and well-written. Errors in grammar and spelling are not only embarrassing; they can actually change the meaning of the words and impact of what is being described. Spell check is a beautiful thing, but make sure to re-read for context errors and if possible have another person proof your work.

Measurable goals and standards. Vague goals with no measures attached are nearly meaningless since they are open to different interpretations by the employee and the supervisor. For example, if you have an employee who may not make it through their probationary because, “They aren’t meeting the needs of the job,” what does that really mean? Supervisors need to ask themselves if they have clearly defined the goals and standards of the position so that the employee can be successful. It is not enough to just tell an employee, “Do a better job at raking.” Define what a “better job” is by giving measurable standards and guides, and make sure to put it down in writing complete with the date discussed with the employee. Set a follow-up date to meet with the employee to review if the goals/standards are being met.

Eliminate documentation “invalidators”. When writing documentation, make sure to NOT include the following things that can “invalidate” documentation. This includes:

  • Personal opinions (just the facts!)
  • Rumors or speculation about the employee’s personal life/family.
  • Theories about why the employee behaves a certain way; we are supervisors not psychologists. Even if you suspect early weekend partying resulting in “Friday-itis”, focus on the number of absences and any patterns that may exist, not why you think they are happening.
  • Any statements that can be construed as “discriminatory” that would include any reference to or information about the employee’s ethnic background, beliefs, medical history, sexual orientation, etc.
  • Unsubstantiated accusations.
  • “Always” or “never” statements. Making sweeping statements like “John is always late” will quickly be invalidated if it can be proven that John actually did show up on time, even just occasionally.

Note progressive discipline. Unfortunately, terminations are sometimes the conclusion of an employment relationship. The goal of any supervisor and/or HR area is that a termination should not come as a “surprise” to an employee. Noting progressive discipline refers to the documentation associated with progressive steps to encourage change in an employee’s problem behavior. Typically the stages of progressive discipline include (but are not limited to), a verbal warning, written warning, final written warning and/or suspension, and then termination. By applying progressive discipline and “noting progressions” in documentation; the supervisor/employer is better able to defend a potential unemployment or discrimination claim by showing they took multiple steps to change the employee’s behavior.

Truth/Accurate. Again, back to the concept that our documentation may be read one day by legal representatives who are trained to find “holes” or discount evidence based on inaccuracies, remember that the simplest error can call into question the validity of an entire report. Do not embellish or exaggerate details; simply stick with true, fact-based details and review documentation carefully to eliminate errors and ensure accuracy.

Invest the time and effort in proper employee documentation in any employment relationship you have. It can be one of the most important tools for a supervisor to do the job correctly; don’t start an employment relationship without it!

Carole Daily has bachelor’s degree in Human Resource Management from Harding University and more than 15 years experience in the HR industry. Carole consults through Daily HR Solutions, and is the wife of Darian Daily, Head Sports Field
Manager for the Cincinnati Bengals. They live in Independence, KY.