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6 Tips for Effective Documentation

Thorough documentation is a critical part of performance management. It’s also a vital component when building an employer’s defense against complaints such as EEOC charges or unemployment insurance disputes.

While an absence of documentation can be devastating to an employer’s defense, poorly written documentation can be just as damaging. Below are six tips on effective documentation:

  1. Just the Facts. Provide the employee with a clear set of facts regarding the behavior that is being disciplined. Avoid embellishments and taking situations out of context. Do not speculate or include unverified information.

  2. Be specific. Include dates of when any of the documented behavior occurred, as well as detailed descriptions of instances where the employee’s behavior did not meet expectations. Generalities do not suffice.

  3. Set clear expectations. Ensure the employee is clear on what the expectations are and how he or she did not meet them. Performance expectations must be consistent with the employee’s job description.

  4. Don’t take on the role of doctor or lawyer. What is not in your documentation is just as important as what is. Make sure to avoid any legal conclusions such as “your behavior constitutes sexual harassment”. Also avoid “diagnosing” why the employee did not meet expectations. If an employee is experiencing personal problems, it is appropriate to offer assistance such as through an Employee Assistance Program. A discussion of an employee’s personal problems, however, has no place in formal documentation and may expose the employer to additional risk.

  5. “We’ve had this talk before.” A formal written warning should not be the first time the employee learns that his or her performance is lacking. By the time you get to the formal discipline process, prior discussions with the employee (also documented) should have taken place. In the formal documentation, refer to those conversations, include the date they took place and what was discussed to demonstrate that the employee was previously made aware of any issue(s). Provide a specific roadmap of what the employee is expected to do to get back on track and set a date for the next meeting to reevaluate the situation. Be sure to note what will occur if the employee does not improve and begin meeting expectations – this may include further discipline or perhaps discharge.

  6. Close the Loop. Performance management has little impact if there is no follow-through. Meet again with the employee in the time frame indicated in the formal discipline documentation. Reevaluate the employee’s behavior and discuss any improvements or continued deficiencies. Depending upon the situation, determine and discuss next steps.

Document early, thoroughly and often. Working with skilled human resources professionals can help ensure that your documentation is appropriate and effective.