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Document, Document, Document. But How?

An employment attorney offers tips on how managers can effectively track employee behaviors and discipline


A young african american woman is sitting at a desk with a laptop and papers.


​Documenting employee actions and behaviors is a vital responsibility for managers, so much so that one leading employment attorney encourages employers to include it in managers' job descriptions.

Allison West, Esq., SHRM-SCP, principal at Employment Practices Specialists in Pacifica, Calif., explained why and offered valuable guidelines for the documentation process during her "Seven Steps for Creating Bulletproof Documentation" concurrent session at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2022 in New Orleans on June 14.

"Managers are repeatedly told, 'You need to document,' but too often they don't know exactly what to document and how, and that becomes a problem—particularly if an employee/employer case reaches a trial," West said.

Including dates and drilled-down specifics about a worker's performance when it comes to things such as arriving on time, meeting deadlines, behavior toward team members or following any company policies is just as important as avoiding bias, opinions and accusations, West said. Once managers notice something troubling, they need to start writing it down.

"We are often told you need to be consistent in how you document, but that doesn't mean doing it exactly the same for everyone in every case," she said. "What it means is that you must do so within a range, be fair and have the documentation over a long period of time, not just the past few weeks or month.

"And whatever you do, don't back-date anything. You'd be surprised, but defense lawyers might subpoena your office's copy machine or hard drives to find out what and when it happened."

What's Considered 'Important'?

Managers are told to document what's important, West said. "But even that isn't exactly clear. One guidepost would be [to document] the things that happen more than once and being able to pinpoint when they happened first."

West suggested that managers avoid these words in documentation: weakness, shortcomings, inadequate, failure, failing and fail. "Those words can be construed as opinions, and they have different meanings to different people," she said. "Describe the conduct, not the individual."

Instead, offer facts and details about what happened. Being vague or nonspecific is a losing proposition.

Be sure to describe employee expectations. For this, managers may use phrases from the employee handbook, job description, or policies and procedures manual.

For example, instead of writing "Show up on time," write, "Your job begins at 8 a.m., at which time you are expected to be at your desk and ready to answer customer calls."

Avoid slang and absolute words such as always, every time, never or invariably.

Include All Perspectives

Effective documentation includes both sides of the issue. "Always get the employee's explanation about why the expectations aren't being met," West said. "This shows that you had a two-way conversation, were fair, and it could give you a chance to correct the situation based on new facts that are presented."

When devising an action plan, be sure it is loaded with details and that the employee signs off on it in agreement, she said. It also should include a timeline for when the new directives should be met and how the manager will evaluate the progress. Avoid using specific time frames such as 30, 60 or 90 days, because then the employee could hold the manager to that exact date.

And don't say it must begin "immediately" or "right away." Instead present a realistic timetable for it to be carried out.

Also include any further discipline or consequences if the specific improvements are not met.

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Virginia.

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