7 rules for solid documentation

Most leaders of people don’t enjoy the details of performance management. Just a slice of it is the documentation behind an employee’s performance.

There are the items you document because as a manager you want to remember to talk about it at a one-on-one meeting with that team member or remember this event for a performance review. These items are typically good performance i.e., they did a great job on organizing a meeting, answering questions for a topic they are an expert on or giving extra effort to a project or assisting a colleague.

The other side of documentation comes about when an individual’s performance is less than desired, for example arriving late to work, projects completed with lesser quality or not in the desired time frame, not playing nice with others on their team.

From the moment an employee is hired or promoted it’s the manager’s responsibility to set expectations, and the expectations should be clear. For example, “I expect you to be ready to work at your desk at 8 a.m.,” not “I expect you to be on time for work each day.” Expectations need to be specific, and managers must hold employees accountable.

If expectations are set at the beginning of the relationship, employees know when they are not holding up their end of the bargain. Using the same on-time for work example, if an employee needs to come into work at 8:30 a.m. a couple of days one week, he or she should touch base with their managers to apprise them in advance and so together they can work out any issues. If the employee fails to notify the manager about the need for a temporary schedule change, this is where things can get dicey.

Managers should follow up with employees when their performance is not as expected and not make assumptions. The purpose of documenting performance issues properly isn’t just to protect the employer in case an employee files a lawsuit, it’s also to show that the employer has taken steps to help someone be successful.

Most managers live with the deficiencies in performance over time, but when a decision is made to separate the individual to solve the issue, there is no proper documentation. It’s human resources’ responsibility to be objective and make certain the proper steps are taken to build proper documentation, showing in fact that the employer tried to help this individual improve over time.

The 7 Rules

• Set expectations clearly. Provide a job description and company policies and requirements in advance. Be specific.

• In the event behavior is not as expected, describe the performance that must change (or that you would like to continue). Be specific about the behavior, not the individual. Do not use judgmental words like always and never. These words can lead to future complications and are easily disputable. Record specific dates, times and unwanted behaviors. Observations should be job related.

• Include the employee’s explanations for why expectations are not being met. Have a conversation to help managers understand how to be fair and help the individual. Do not rush to judgment. This will backfire.

• Prepare a detailed action plan that employees can use to help improve their performance. This should not be a performance improvement plan; coaching an individual is much better. The action plan should include specific steps the employee should take and what the manager will do to assist. In order to be realistic, focus on only a few key areas.

• Set specific deadlines for performance improvement. Don’t say you expect immediate improvement. This can mean different things to different people. Follow up at a specified time. If you don’t, the message you are sending is you don’t care and this isn’t important.

• Describe the consequences if the unwanted behavior persists after repeated attempts to help the employee. In the case of serious violations, disciplinary action might be necessary. Describe the conversations you have had in detail, noting dates and times. If the situation ultimately involves termination, the specific dates of meetings, coaching and training should be included and a summation of the reasons for termination.

• Stay away from using vague phrases and terms that could be used as grounds for discrimination suits. Don’t let people go because of a bad attitude or that they do not fit the company culture. This could lead the them to believe they were let go because of their gender, race or membership in a group.

Remember to prepare your documentation assuming a third party will be reviewing it. This third party could be internal or external to your organization. Include detailed information so that it tells a story that others can follow and understand the situation.

In today’s talent environment you should ensure that you have done all you can to help individuals be successful. There are times when managers allow their “good employees” more leeway, and do not hold them to the same standards as others because they are fearful of losing them. This is showing preferential treatment.

Another critical part of proper documentation is showing equal treatment to all employees. The art of progressive discipline truly is to help all be successful, so the process should be used in that vein. It is HR’s responsibility to coach managers on how to properly use the tools to assure proper documentation occurs.