Alison West thinks every HR pro should keep a pen and paper with them at all times. “It will help you get into the habit of documenting,” she said at the SHRM Conference in New Orleans. “Always have a pad of paper on you and on your desk.”
An employment law attorney, West believes documentation is crucial to keeping a workplace running right—ensuring fairness, promoting good performance and, most important, winning in court if an employee sues you.
Being able to prove your side of an employment law case usually comes down to whose story is most believable. Having good notes and files on what happened, who was involved and how you handled the situation will often carry the day.
“The more documentation you do, the higher your credibility,” West said. “It’s what judges and juries expect. Agencies like the EEOC will give you the benefit of the doubt if you have good, factual documentation.”
What to document? If it affects how an employee does the job, whether he or she is hired or promoted or punished for some infraction, write it down. Of course, when there’s the slightest whiff of harassment or retaliation, you need to document that too. The same goes for matters relating to the and ADA.
“Use your common sense,” West advised. “When you say something important to an employee—or vice versa—write it down. When the discussion has relevance to the employment relationship, document it. Isn’t that just about everything? Well, yeah.”
She offered seven rules for creating documentation that promotes your organization’s goals and will stand up in court. Include them in every piece of documentation.
Rule No. 1: Describe your expectations
These come from your company documents—things like policies, procedures, employee goals and company standards. Cite the specific expectation the employee failed to meet.
Rule No. 2: Describe the behavior or performance that must change
Describe the conduct, not the individual. "Your last three reports were late." Not "You're lazy." Keep observations job-related and use objective criteria--the ones you cited under expectations. Describe the impact on others--how the problem affects co-workers and the organization as a whole. Most of all, be specific.
Rule No. 3: Include the employee’s explanation why expectations aren’t being met
Maybe there’s a good reason why those reports were late—maybe co-workers aren’t providing the information necessary to complete them. Including the employee’s explanation helps the employee own the problem—and the solution. It also shows you’re interested in resolving the issue. Your goal isn’t to fire the guy, is it?
Rule No. 4: Detail the action plan and the goals
Detail what steps the employee will take to improve her performance or conduct. Spell out the steps the manager or supervisor will take to help the employee achieve the desired results. Ask the employee to agree to the terms by signing off on them.
Rule No. 5: Describe the consequences
Clearly state what will happen if performance or behavior does not improve—discipline, demotion, no promotion, additional training, etc. If necessary, add the dreaded phrase “up to and including termination.”
Rule No. 6: Include time expectations
When must the employee show improvement or meet the goals you agreed to? Be realistic; don't ask for the impossible. Set out an exact time frame, such as 30, 60 or 90 days. Note: If you prescribe an exact time frame, you MUST follow up at that time.
Rule No. 7: Follow up
State what will happen when you follow up. What part of the performance will you be reviewing? What specific improvements do you expect? What will happen if the employee is successful in meeting the goals you set? If you use a system, here's where to spell out the next steps.
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