We’re good at documenting many things:
• “He leads the league in late-in-the-game stolen bases against left-handed pitchers.”
• “That’s the fourth-best movie opening ever for a non-comedy in October.”
• “The stock closed at its highest price since May 9, 1993…”
Unfortunately, job performance isn’t one of them. If it were, we’d find personnel files with notes like this:
“Joan had the sixth-best day of her tenure today when she processed more checks than on any post-holiday Tuesday since our merger with GigantiCorp . . .”
OK, it’s a bit much, but it’s better than the familiar alternatives, which are inaccurate or incomplete documentation or no documentation at all.
There is a happy medium: consistent, objective, honest, and thorough documentation of milestones and key conversations. Here’s how:
• Keep track of the big stuff. You can’t document everything, or that’s all you’d ever do. But you can and must document the big stuff:
• Counseling and other conversations that could be important in the future regarding discipline, pay, transfer, promotion, demotion, and so forth. Include meetings that you initiate (such as counseling an employee about tardiness) and meetings initiated by the employee (such as conversations in which she expresses interest in a transfer or promotion).
• Discipline, including verbal warnings, written warnings, suspensions, and demotions
• Evidence of training the employee received
• Changes in employment (such as raises, promotions, transfers, and commission agreements)
If there’s ever a question about employee performance, you want an accurate record of what was expected, the rewards for meeting those expectations, the consequences for not meeting them, and the training and other support offered to help employees. You also want a record that you will be proud to show to a jury—one that is professional, concise, and based only on work-related issues.
Most interaction with employees is conversational, so it’s lost unless you make a record of it. Document what was said (not word for word, but generally) by both of you. Note the outcome of the conversation. For example: “I pointed out to Julie that she has been tardy six times in the last month on the following dates: August 9, 15, 17, 24, and September 3 and 5. She had no protected reason for the tardiness. This number of absences clearly exceeds what our policies permit. I told Julie that if she’s late again during the next 30 days without a valid reason (such as a necessary medical appointment) that I will give her a written warning that will go into her file, and that if she’s late two or more times in the next 30 days she could face further discipline, including suspension. Julie explained that she had been having car trouble, but said that she understood and made a commitment to get to work on time.”
If a problem gets to the point that a written reprimand is required, then a copy of the reprimand, signed by you and the employee, should be part of your documentation.
• Be prompt. No matter how well intentioned you are, you won’t remember the details of your conversations. Notes made weeks or months after the fact aren’t as credible as notes made right away. Do your documenting as soon as possible and date whatever you write.
• Be open. Give the documentation of the conversation to the employee. Have the employee sign it to acknowledge that he received it. Always allow a place (and sufficient space) for the employee to reply.
• Keep the documentation. All documentation should go into the employee’s personnel file. That way you can find it when you need it.
• Limit access to the documentation. Keeping documentation in the file also keeps it confidential. The only people who should see it are the employee, you, members of the HR staff, and senior management. Even then, no one should see it unless there’s a specific management reason to do so.
• Don’t forget informal documentation. In addition to the formal documentation we’ve discussed, it’s also helpful to keep informal documentation. Many reviews suffer from focusing only on recent events because that’s what managers can remember. You can avoid that if you keep notes when employees do something well, or if you notice opportunities for improvement. Because the notes are for you, use any format that works, but keep them brief (for example, “Lillian found a billing error that saved us $10,000”) so you aren’t discouraged from doing it.
Real Life Example
The manager pulled no punches when he called the VP of HR. “I can’t stand it anymore,” he said. “I have an employee who has a bad attitude, who’s chronically late, and who makes a lot of mistakes. She’s not doing a good job. She needs to be fired. Preferably today.”
The VP of HR agreed that if the employee really had that many performance problems she should be terminated. He offered to look at the facts in the case and develop a plan.
When he went to the file, however, the VP of HR was stunned: everything in it was positive. There was no mention of a bad attitude, tardiness, or poor work.
He called the manager to ask how long there had been a problem. “Ever since we hired her six years ago,” the manager said.
“But there’s nothing in the file except reviews saying she’s been doing a good job,” the VP said.
“Well,” the manager snapped, “everyone knows this employee is a problem.”
Everyone, apparently, except the employee herself. The VP of HR explained that there was no way to fire the employee without risking a wrongful termination suit, and even if it were possible it wouldn’t be fair.
Instead of firing the poor performer and hiring the young star he had lined up to replace her, the manager began the long and painful process of documenting all the problems “everyone” knew about. The process was made longer and more painful because of the years of running away from the problem instead of doing the employee and the company the favor of addressing and possibly changing the behavior.