Managing people is one of the most time-consuming and difficult aspects of any job. Whether you have one direct report or 20, the responsibilities loom large and finding the time to follow sound management practices in everything you do as a supervisor can be challenging. Documentation of performance and conduct issues often feels like one of the most burdensome duties, and unfortunately it is the one that usually gets put off the longest.
How many managers actually take the time, either during a meeting with an employee or immediately after, to write notes about the conversation and put it in his or her manager's file? Most managers will say that they do not document everything they should and even if they do, they admit it may not get done until several days, weeks, or months have passed and it's time for annual performance reviews. They also acknowledge later, if the employee's performance or conduct has not improved, that the notes they wrote were not a complete representation of what was actually discussed.
If the relationship with an employee is deteriorating and the employer needs to take some disciplinary action, the absence of appropriate documentation can make a big difference in the outcome. Apart from following the company's performance review process, documenting various conversations with employees is necessary because it may impact the type of discipline you administer, including whether to terminate employment. That's because when you work with the human resources department to discuss problem performers, the HR professional is going to want to know what's already been said and done as they help you plan the performance strategy. Without appropriate documentation, you may be told that the action you feel is necessary to take is ill advised.
Here are some tips for documentation that will help make your life easier in the long run:
- Document "performance and conduct" conversations on the same day that the conversation takes place. If it is not possible to take notes during the conversation, take some time at the end of the day to write it down. If you've prepared notes before the conversation, those will help you when you write down what was said and done. If you wait days, weeks, or months to write it down, your memory about the details will have faded. And if the employee takes legal action against you or the company in the future, your written record and credibility can be called into doubt if you waited too long to record the events.
- All documentation of conversations with employees should include the date of the conversation, your name and title, and the employee's name and title. This sounds obvious but it is rarely done on a consistent basis. As you or the employee change jobs in the organization over time, it is sometimes difficult later on to put the record of the conversation into context or in a timeline. If the employee is experiencing the same or similar problems throughout his or her employment, the employee's next manager (or two or three) may need to use your record of the conversation for assessing how to deal with the employee, particularly if some negative employment action is going to take place.
- Do not abbreviate, editorialize, or characterize in your written record. Write down what you said and what the employee said. For example, writing something like "John tried making his usual excuses for his performance" does not tell the reader the content of the "usual excuses" and does not demonstrate the basis for being dismissive of John's reasons. Write down exactly what John said.
- Always include the "take away" from the meeting in your notes. State the action plan you told the employee, being clear about the expectations you set for the employee to follow.
- Make notes regardless of whether the conversation is considered a formal action (i.e., verbal counseling, etc.) under your company's discipline policies. In particular, be sure that you make notes of conversations even when it involves a meeting in which you presented the employee with a written disciplinary document or action plan. The document you gave the employee does not reflect the entire conversation about the issues discussed.
- If you write your notes in a document on the computer, do not maintain them on a shared drive. Your relationship with the employee is between you and the employee.
- Do not manage employees through e-mail! It is fine to send the employee an e-mail message confirming the conversation but it does not substitute for having a one-on-one conversation and taking notes on it.
- Follow your company's policy regarding which documents should be included in the official personnel file and which should be in your manager's file. When you document conversations with employees, keep in mind that other unrelated third parties (like a jury or plaintiff's attorney) may read the documents in the future. You need to represent yourself and the company in a professional matter and be prepared to defend what you wrote.
- Pass your manager's file to the next manager if the employee changes job in the company or if you leave your position supervising the employee.
- Be sure you do not keep notes of conversations with employees about private matters, such as medical issues or taking sick or family leave, with the rest of your documents about the employee. Medical documentation is subject to various privacy laws. Talk to your HR department about where such notes must be kept.
Barrie Gross is former Vice President and Senior Corporate Counsel (Employment Law) for an international Fortune 1000 company and is a regular contributor to AllBusiness.com. She is the founder of Barrie Gross Consulting, a human resources training and consulting firm dedicated to assisting companies to manage and develop their human capital. Visit www.barriegrossconsulting.com to learn more about Barrie and the services BGC provides.
Note: The information here does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice. If you have a legal issue or wish to obtain legal advice, you should consult an attorney in your area concerning your particular situation and facts. Nothing presented on this site or in this article establishes or should be construed as establishing an attorney-client or confidential relationship between you and Barrie Gross. This article is provided only as general information, which may or may not reflect the most current legal developments or be complete.