When in doubt, document. That’s the expert advice you should give your managers when discussing important job-related matters with employees.
Whether a manager is congratulating an employee on a job well-done or coaching them to improve their behavior or performance, proper documentation helps both parties. The following tips can help supervisors throughout the documentation cycle.
(Note: These strategies pertain to day-to-day tasks and responsibilities. Harassment, discrimination and other highly sensitive matters may require a different approach and should involve your HR and legal teams.)
Proper documentation processes
Record dates and names. When holding a formal conversation related to performance, record the date and everyone involved. Never change the date, even if the conversation had been scheduled for a different day. Include full names on the first reference. First names or initials are acceptable after that. Ask all parties to verify the date and discussion points with a physical or electronic signature when possible.
Set expectations. The document should begin with a clear, concise intent. If a manager is helping an employee improve their job performance, the manager should avoid vague phrases like “It’s time to pick up the pace” or “You know what’s expected by now.” Instead, include specific details. For example:
- “Show up at work by 8 a.m. Monday through Friday.”
- “Wear appropriate clothing covering your feet and toes.”
- “Meet reporting deadlines each Friday by 4 p.m.”
Highlight the good and the bad. People often think of documentation as capturing negative performance and charting a path for discipline or termination. However, it should capture the full employment record, including positive records that can lay the groundwork for stretch assignments, promotions, bonuses and salary increases. Managers should relay the full scope of documentation and how it helps both sides. If documentation solely occurs after inappropriate behavior or poor performance, employees will feel under attack and less open to forthright discussions.
Specify objective changes. If the discussion includes behavior or performance matters, focus on job-related issues. Describe actions, not personal failings. The following examples differentiate between factual descriptions and individual criticism.
- Objective: “Yelling in a meeting shuts down the conversation, makes others less likely to share ideas and harms company culture.”
- Personal: “You’re always shouting and interrupting, and you need to change that.”
Talk about the employee’s impact on others, both good and bad. And detail the behavior or performance you’d like to see. In the example above, you might note, “People respect your ideas. But before making a suggestion in the next meeting, please affirm the previous speaker’s point. If you disagree, offer an alternative solution without dismissing other viewpoints. Use a civil, courteous tone in all discussions.”
Include employee input. Manager-employee interactions should be two-way. When discussing inappropriate behavior or performance, allow employees to explain their side. Documents should include their reasoning. This strategy records all feedback, demonstrates fairness and enables supervisors to provide customized solutions.
Establish goals. Documents should identify agreed-upon outcomes, especially in cases involving behavior or performance improvement. This process creates a track record with clear steps for employees to take. Examples include:
- “Beginning Feb. 14, you agree to arrive at work by 8 a.m. each day.”
- “By 4:30 p.m. every Wednesday, you will provide a status update on your sales goals and potential leads.”
Create a timeline. A timeline may be as simple as listing the date and time of the next discussion. If specific improvements or goals are discussed, set the timing for those to occur. Examples include:
- “We will document your arrival time each morning and review your progress two weeks from today.”
- “The presentation you turn in on the 22nd will be peer-reviewed and free of typos.”
- “When you return from the conference on Friday, you will have one week to deliver actionable takeaways to the team. This report will be due next Friday at 3:30 p.m.”
Follow up with the employee. Managers should document each time they discuss issues affecting an employee’s role or track record. If the conversation involves behavior or performance improvements, list specific consequences for the employee’s failure to achieve the stated goals. Consequences may include:
- Required training tasks
- Withheld assignments or promotions
- Progressive discipline
- Demotion or termination
If appropriate, managers should discuss positive aspects stemming from the communication process. Include the employee’s feedback and ask for their input on future discussions.
Train managers on proper documentation strategies. Training can help them avoid making personal judgments, accusations, exaggerations and legal conclusions within their documents. Remind them that words like “never” or “always” are unhelpful generalities.
Documentation should be clear, consistent and objective for all of a manager’s direct reports. Supervisors can’t keep separate or secret documents. Documentation needs to be able to withstand outside scrutiny. In a legal action, all documents will be discoverable. When creating documents, supervisors should imagine being able to present them to a jury.
Help managers avoid red flags. Examples of inappropriate documentation include telling employees they have a bad attitude, don’t help the team or don’t fit the culture. These statements don’t provide straightforward ways to improve. Further, they are open to interpretation and could give rise to discrimination claims.
Encourage managers to learn from mistakes, not hide them. Transparency is more important than perfection, and documentation errors can lead to future improvements.
Keep track of all documentation. Have a system for creating, filing and tracking documents. Keep multiple copies, including backups. Many organizations go entirely digital. At the very least, you should have digital copies. Be clear about when documents can be deleted or destroyed. Check your documentation system through internal or external audits.
For more information on proper documentation, talk to your benefits adviser. They can share best practices, training opportunities and third-party vendors that specialize in organizing and digitizing employee documentation.