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Good documentation is the key to legally disciplining employees

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in HR Management,Human Resources

It would be nice if all employees came to work on time, performed efficiently and pleasantly, and were thankful for their paychecks. But em­­ployers know that employees sometimes fall far short of your hopes, in ways that require you to act.

Before you discipline an employee, ask a few key questions to ensure you’re acting appropriately: Does the punishment fit the crime? Have you already discussed the problem with the employee? Are the facts clear, or is there room for disagreement about what happened? Is the punishment you are considering consistent with what you have done in the past?

It’s all about fairness. After all, most workplace lawsuits stem from employees’ perceptions that they got a raw deal.

How to document discipline

How you document a discipline issue can cause problems if an employee files a lawsuit. To protect your organization, follow these guidelines:

Be consistent. Check to see how similar problems have been documented in the past.

Be specific. Example of poor documentation: “Employee was late three times in the past month.” Better: “Employee was 30 minutes late on Feb. 5; reason given: traffic. Employee was 45 minutes late on Feb. 9; reason given: overslept. Employee was an hour late on Feb. 23; reason given: car problems.”

Write in a clear, factual manner. Note the policy or procedure that the employee has violated. Date the document.

Avoid emotional content, including personal impressions (“I think …”), labels (“He’s a whiner …”), adjectives (“very unproductive …”) and drawing conclusions about the reasons for the employee’s behavior.

State the consequences if the be­­havior continues. Example: “If the employee is tardy again this month, he will be fired.”

Ask the employee to sign and date the document if it’s going into his or her personnel file. If the employee refuses to sign, note that on the document.

Let employees respond in writing and put the response in their files.

What should you document?

  • Excessive tardiness, unexcused absences.
  • Incompetent job performance. Cite attempts you make to help the employee improve.
  • Failure to comply with policy or with established safety procedures.
  • Physical violence, verbal threats.
  • Complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination. Include details of your follow-up investigation.
  • Proven instances of on-the-job drunkenness or drug use.
  • Positive performance. Ironically, failing to document a positive performance can strengthen an employee’s claims of discrimination. A file of all-bad comments may look like a setup.

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