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Down with Documentation

A man in a suit and blue shirt smiling.

Former employment attorney and author Jathan Janove writes for SHRM Online on how to inject greater humanity into HR compliance. Jathan welcomes your questions and suggestions for future columns. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.  

I have a modest proposal: Ban the word "documentation."

The word is cold, lifeless and dehumanizing. Instead of encouraging growth, trust and engagement in employees who need to adjust their behavior or performance, it causes stagnation, fear and withdrawal.

In my prior career as a labor and employment attorney, it never ceased to amaze me how poorly managers document important matters. Their "documentation" more often helped plaintiffs' attorneys than it did their employers.

Does this mean never put anything in writing? No.

It means shifting your paradigm from documenting to "cover yourself" to using written expression to promote clarity and understanding.

Over the years, I've shared with clients a communication tool I call the "Same Day Summary" (SDS).

An SDS is a written confirmation composed and sent shortly after a meeting or discussion. It follows these simple rules: 

  • It's short and to the point. It lists the key takeaways.
  • It lists the key takeaways, which include: (a) commitments made—who will do what by when; (b) critical facts or understandings where divergent memories or interpretations could be problematic; and (c) recognition of positive or constructive behavior.
  • It's written as soon as possible after the real-time conversation, typically well within a day.
  • The recipient is invited to add anything he or she thinks was omitted or to correct any perceived misstatements. 

Here are the SDS's benefits, followed by some ways to apply it to your performance management and day-to-day needs: 

  • Because they're written while the conversation is fresh in mind, they're usually accurate.
  • Because they are limited to summarizing only the key takeaways, SDSs take minutes to write.
  • If sent promptly with language such as "Let me know if I missed or misstated anything," they're user-friendly for recipients. Recipients don't need to reply unless they think the writer missed something significant.
  • E-mail is a handy SDS vehicle. In addition to being quick and efficient, e-mail makes it easy to store SDSs electronically. After hitting "Send", click and drag the SDS into a labeled folder. This makes subsequent retrieval quick and easy.
  • In a non-judgmental, non-authoritarian way, the SDS aligns writer and recipient. It provides a checklist they can use to hold themselves and each other accountable. 

Performance Management

As a performance management tool, the SDS shifts the communication from hierarchal (boss to employee) to collaborative (teammates pursuing shared goals).

American Pacific Mortgage has incorporated SDSs into both its performance management training and employee Individual Development Plan program. "The Same Day Summary promotes active listening, a critical ingredient in any effective performance management or employee development program," said Dan Cooper, senior vice president of HR. "Since it's a summary of what was discussed, the primary focus remains on the parties' interaction, not their documents." 

Employee Discipline

When employees fail to meet expectations, you can use SDSs to promote problem-solving discussions instead of one-way, top-down communication.

Paul Jones, chief leadership development officer at USANA Health Sciences, Inc., shared a specific experience:

A longtime employee struggled with key aspects of his job and interacted poorly with fellow employees. The supervisor took the traditional approach and wrote a punitive statement, enumerating the employee's faults, pushed it in front of the employee to sign, and stated that the employee had two months to fix things.

The employee was offended, defensive, angry, completely disagreed with the statement, and refused to sign. 

After we in HR learned of the problem, we coached the supervisor's manager on the Same Day Summary approach. The manager then sat down with the employee, explained the concerns and provided examples, and listened to the employee. The employee agreed to the changes needed. The manager followed up with an SDS.

Instead of anger, defensiveness and resistance, the employee thanked the manager." 

Everyday Use 

Personally, I have found SDSs to be extremely useful for any conversation of significance. As a practicing lawyer, I start using them following conversations with opposing counsel.

However, the SDS's uses go far beyond law and lawyers. At 1-800 Contacts, Inc., in addition to performance management and corrective action, SDSs are used to capture key takeaways of any meeting of importance. "What I love most about the Same Day Summary is how universal it is in its application," said Dustin Dipo, director of people. "Our leaders who've made it part of their regular routine have found the SDS a great way to index every significant interaction."


HR professionals sometimes question whether a document as informal as an SDS can be used effectively in large employers. The answer is yes, provided you integrate your SDS practice with your document retention system, including preserving e-mail SDSs when you have auto-delete policies.

Elaine Buchele, chief HR consultant at Performance Enterprise, previously ran HR for a $1 billion-company with 6,000 employees. She had an HR staff of 45.

"After I learned the Same Day Summary method, it rapidly replaced my old methods of documenting. I taught it to the HR professionals on my staff and directed them to use it. The SDS is easy to administer, it protects the company, and it promotes clear communication—all in a single e-mail." 

Don't Make These Mistakes

Are there missteps to avoid? Yes. Here are the most common: 

  • Wordiness. You're not taking meeting minutes and you don't get points for comprehensiveness. List only the most important items addressed, such as specific commitments or deadlines. If the recipient thinks you missed something, he or she can respond to your invitation to make corrections. Less is more.
  • Continuing the conversation. Don't add, embellish, reflect, opine, etc. The conversation is over. You're simply memorializing its critical points. The SDS is summary of a real-time conversation, not a substitute.
  • Delay. Research shows that we start to forget new information almost as quickly as we learn it. The longer you wait, the greater the likelihood that your SDS will omit or misstate something important. Also, delay makes it harder to write the SDS because you'll have to rack your memory regarding what was said. 

Share Your Story

If you adopt the SDS tool, I'd love to learn your experience. You may be featured in a future column. 

Jathan Janove, J.D., is the author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins/Amacom, 2017). He is president of the Oregon Organization Development Network and was named in Inc. magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Speakers for 2018. If you have questions or suggestions for topics for future columns, write to


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