How to document employee performance issues for HR & Managers

Manager Jim sits with his direct report, Emily, in the human resources office for a meeting resulting from his submitting a written warning about her excessive mobile phone usage in the work environment. Jim details how such employee behavior affects productivity and looks terrible in front of customers. He states how he talked to her about the problem previously but that she ignored their talk.

Emily looks puzzled. “You have never talked with me about this issue,” she announces. Jim counters that he certainly did. The HR rep steps in and asks Jim to provide the date and place of the conversation. He pauses, and the rep asks if he wrote down that information. Jim shakes his head. “No.”

Suddenly, it dawns on Jim that he had never had that conversation with Emily. He had one with another young employee and meant to conduct a similar one with Emily. However, a busy couple of weeks got the best of him, and talking about texting slipped through the cracks.

Jim sheepishly explains the situation. Both Emily and the rep look annoyed. The rep states that per company policies, they will consider this meeting step one – a verbal warning. The rep discards step two – the written warning.

The importance of documenting employee behavior

When day-to-day operations get chaotic or deadlines loom, taking the time to document employee performance issues may be challenging for a manager. Timely, proper documentation, though, can spare both a manager and the company trouble.

Reasons to take performance documentation seriously include:

  • Written records serve as a reminder of where things stand in the disciplinary action process, eliminating situations like the one Jim experienced.
  • Workers often take performance expectations more seriously if they know the manager is documenting their behavior. They realize paperwork in their personnel file could have long-term implications for promotions and raises.
  • Following documentation procedures helps to eliminate charges of unfair treatment, favoritism, or discrimination. Managers follow the same steps for everyone, and using a standard template ensures the same type of information gets recorded for each offender.
  • Thorough documentation is critical for protection in legal cases. If a fired employee claims unfair dismissal, employment law values a clear trail of how a company handles performance problems. Similarly, a worker’s union may want to see the evidence as it decides whether or not to pursue action.

Stages of documenting employee performance

Innovative companies clearly outline how managers should handle employee performance problems. Taking away the guesswork eases stress and promotes order. Savvy organizations provide all workers with information, too. The employee handbook needs to spell out the company’s disciplinary policy – what actions are punishable and how. Then, obtain the employee’s signature, indicating that he has read and understands the material.

Most companies employ a progressive discipline system (though certain acts, such as theft or physical violence, typically demand immediate termination). Progressive discipline means warnings and outcomes increase in severity if the employee fails to change ways.

A manager talking to an employee is often the initial course of action. Such a discussion brings the problem to light, which may be sufficient to end the unwanted behavior. For instance, a worker guilty of frequent tardiness may start showing up on time when he realizes the leader is “on” to him.

Avoid the temptation not to bother documenting this stage. While it may seem more informal than later actions, it is still a critical part of the overall process. Write down the date you issue the verbal warning and the reason for the conversation. Obtain the employee’s signature as an acknowledgment. Follow company guidelines on putting this record in the worker’s personnel file or keeping it in your records unless performance issues continue.

The next stage(s) often involves managers documenting performance problems through write-ups. Human resources may provide a template to ensure pertinent information gets recorded in a complete and organized manner.

While each company distributes its write-up forms, certain elements commonly appear. These items frequently include:

  • The name and position of the employee.
  • The name and title of the person writing the warning.
  • The date of the write-up.
  • The offense, including specific examples.
  • The policy violation, often with a copy of what is stated in the employee handbook.
  • A summary of prior action taken regarding this issue, such as verbal warnings.
  • A statement letting the employee know where this write-up will be filed and who within the company will receive a copy.
  • Space for an employee’s explanation or presentation of his side of the story. (Offering this opportunity is good for maintaining positive employee relations.)
  • Space for relevant signatures, such as employee, manager, HR professional, and union representative.

In addition to addressing poor performance or other infractions, written warnings may include detailed action plans for rectification. (Some places create a separate document known as a PIP – Performance Improvement Plan – for this purpose.) Such information presents a route for this team member to improve. If possible, create objectives with measurable metrics. Set a timeline for meeting again to go over outcomes. Document any assistance you or the company offer to meet these goals, such as professional development opportunities or mentorship.

Companies vary in how many written warnings they allow and the repercussions that come with each. Failure to change ways can lead to actions such as probation, suspension, demotion, or termination. Within the written documentation and accompanying conversations, these future possibilities should be spelled out so that an employee does not feel blindsided if they happen.

Tips for effective documentation

What managers say and how they say it impacts how others perceive the situation. Aim for clarity and accuracy in documentation by remembering the following:

  • Document while events are fresh in your head, as memory fades with time. Take one if you need a brief cooling-off period to keep emotion out of the documentation. Just be sure to return to the matter in a timely fashion.
  • Make sure everyone can distinguish between your direct observations vs. information provided by a third party. If you mention colleague claims or customer complaints, label them as such so others realize you are reporting, not treating their words as your recollection.
  • When documenting, your job is to record the facts, not interpret them. Provide specific examples using neutral language that conveys what happened. “Jordan has a bad attitude that affects the organization’s culture” is a judgment. Instead, favor objective wording such as “During a staff brainstorming session on Tuesday, August 8, Jordan told one colleague that her ideas were ‘extremely dumb.’ He also took out his phone and began playing Candy Crush during the last 15 minutes of the gathering.” Similarly, favor professional, unemotional language. Don’t label someone a “jerk,” even if that is how you feel. Let an accurate account of the problem speak for itself.
  • Lastly, some situations may require more effort and documentation than others. However, actions taken for similar offenses should be consistent. Over-documentation for a particular employee compared to offenders with almost identical performance issues generates the feeling that you are out to “get” someone. This overzealous account could come back to haunt both the manager and the company later on if an employee lodges a legal complaint of unfair treatment.