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Tell bosses: Follow 3 cardinal rules to document discipline

by on
in HR Management,Human Resources

To be successful, employee feedback should not be an annual or even quarterly event. It should be a routine part of a manager’s day.

In the same way, managers should make documentation of employee performance, behavior and discipline a regular habit. This documentation can be informal, e.g., handwritten notes tossed in an employee’s file, but they should always include the dates and names of all parties involved.

As with any documentation, managers should stick to the facts and stay objective when documenting discipline, avoiding opinions.

Strong documentation will be espe­­cially important if an employee or ex-employee ever files a legal complaint saying his or her termination or discipline was based on illegal discrimination (race, age, gender, disability, religion, etc.). Sound, on­­going documentation by management will prove that performance—not bias—was the reason for the firing.

Best documentation practices

You can help limit your organization’s legal liability by counseling ­managers to keep three basic principles in mind when documenting discipline.

Documentation should be:

1. Immediate. Managers should take notes right after an incident occurs. It’s much harder for an em­­ployee to cast doubt on the boss’s motives if the written explanation comes right after the action.

2. Accurate and believable. When an outside observer (judge, jury or EEO investigator) is called to judge your side of the story, detailed obser­­va­­tions add authenticity. The more specific the documentation, the greater the credibility.

For example, instead of noting that “Bill’s work has been sloppy lately,” it’s better to note, “In each of his last three reports, Bill had at least two important accounting mistakes that needed revisions.”

3. Agreed upon. If both sides agree on what happened, it’s much tougher for either side to later change claims. Try to get employees involved in the documentation process.

Managers should ask the employee to summarize her input in writing, and then compare it to their own recollections. If they can’t reach an agreement, try to get detailed statements from witnesses.

How would it read in court?

When documenting employee short­­comings, always have this key question in mind: “How would this sound if it were read aloud in court?”

If the language used even suggests a discriminatory or retaliatory motive, the organization could find itself in legal trouble.

So before managers even put a single word on paper, they should ask themselves these questions:

  • Do I restrict my written comments to an employee’s on-the-job per­­form­ance?
  • Do I remain objective when it comes to analyzing an employee’s work?
  • Do I consider how my words may be construed as unprofessional, demeaning or sarcastic?
  • Do I make certain that I get all the facts from all involved parties?

Even the most informal note tossed into an employee's file should meet those criteria.

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