Quiz for managers: Documenting performance

Documentation quiz for managers

It’s important to know the kind of language managers should—and should not—use in documentation. Test your knowl­edge by answering “True” or “False” to the following statements:

_____ 1. An employee is caught stealing company equipment. It’s best to list the termination reason as “gross misconduct” since “stealing” could be defamatory.

_____ 2. An employee with a disability is having trouble meeting job standards. It’s better to list her performance as “satisfactory” so she doesn’t become discouraged.

_____ 3. A disciplinary warning should always contain language that spells out the potential penalties the employee faces if he repeats the offense.

_____ 4. If an employee is terminated for poor performance, the best way to disqualify him from unemployment benefits is to use terms such as “unsatisfactory work” or “totally inefficient.”


1. FALSE. It’s not defamatory to list the truthful reason for an employee’s termination and to share that on a need-to-know basis. Sharing the reason with other employees or the public could be defamatory.

2. FALSE. This type of thinking can land a man­ager in the middle of a disability discrimination lawsuit if the employee has to be fired and then fights your performance reasoning in court. So be honest. Spell out the problems and attempt to find solutions.

3. TRUE. Courts typically uphold claims if they believe an employee was not properly warned about the possible consequences of future violations. So spell out in writing exactly what the em­­ployee can expect from further violations.

4. FALSE. Terms such as “unsatisfactory work” are the very ones that could result in unemployment benefits. Such payments are typically withheld only when employees are terminated for gross insubordination or willful misconduct.

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 as 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, stick to the facts and stay objective. Avoid opinions.

A manager’s documentation should be built on three basic principles:

1. Immediate. Memory is a shaky defense in court, so make sure to take notes right after an incident occurs. That makes it much harder for an employee to cast doubt on a manager’s motives if the written explanation comes right after the action.

2. Accurate & 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. Hang your hat on facts, not impressions, to reflect objectivity.

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. Agreement. 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.