The Dangers of Bad Workplace Documentation

The Dangers of Bad Workplace Documentation

The importance of workplace documentationHR folks are always saying, “Document, document, document!”

As an HR person myself, many times in my career, I’ve looked at files and cringed as I’ve read the documentation.  Yikes!  If that documentation had to be handed over in a legal discovery process, we’d be in big trouble!

There’s good documentation and there’s poor documentation.  It’s vitally important to know the difference, because it can mean winning or losing for an organization!

Stick to the facts:

Documentation should stick to facts and stay away from opinion.  Words such as “I think” or “seems to” don’t belong in documentation.

For instance, if an employee is routinely tardy, the documentation should say “John was late to work by 10 minutes or more 3 times this week.”  It is inappropriate to say, “John seems to not care about his job as he doesn’t come to work on time.”

Avoid discriminatory statements:

We are usually aware of all of the things we can’t discriminate on.  But sometimes that information bleeds into managers’ documentation anyway.

For instance, putting this in the file of a new mother would be a big no-no: “Since the birth of her child, Julie’s absenteeism has increased.”

Be honest:

That may seem like an obvious statement.  But most documentation can be subpoenaed, and when lawyers and government agencies become involved, there can be an inclination to clean things up.

Never re-create reality or backdate documentation. It’s better to have to offer clarification than to be found to be a liar.

Besides, with technology what it is today, dishonest acts most likely will get caught!

Edit your work:

After you create your documentation, go back and edit it.  Think about how the words will sound not only to the employee, but to their lawyer and to government entities like the EEOC.

Is the information clear and succinct?  Is there enough information, or too much detail?

Be clear:

Sometimes, when faced with the task of writing an employee up for performance issues, folks feel like they need to be more formal in their language.

The result can be a document that is cumbersome, unclear, and full of pseudo legal jargon.  The outcome is that the employee is unclear on what the issue and expectation is, so they cannot comply with the requested changes.

It is better to use clear, simple language than to rely too much upon formality or jargon.

Provide the context:

If you really want the employee to change, provide them with context.

Give them a copy of the company policy they are violating.  Explain to them how their actions are harming the company.

Someone who is habitually tardy may not realize that it puts a big burden on another co-worker who is picking up the slack for them.

Be consistent:

We know we have to treat all employees the same.  But we are all human, and sometimes someone just gets under our skin.  We can’t let that affect our documentation or discipline.

If you are documenting Julie every time she is late, and there are others who also regularly come in late, you’d better be documenting them as well.  Because if you’re not, Julie will take notice of that for sure.

Everything is documentation:

Documentation isn’t  just a warning letter in an employee’s file.

If lawyers and others get involved, all sorts of items can be subpoenaed. Emails you’ve sent, notes made in an HRIS, and other documentation will all be turned over in discovery.

Sometimes it’s better to not put things in writing.  And it’s always best to choose our written words carefully.

The wrap-up:

Good, clear documentation can be a business life saver! And bad documentation can cost a business dearly. And no documentation at all may leave you very exposed!

So, document, document, document… but do it with detail, clarity, consistency, and always with an eye on legality.