Human Resources News & Insights

6 documentation gaffes that will come back to haunt you

As HR pros, you obviously get the importance of thoroughly (and carefully) documenting employee performance problems.

You know who doesn’t? A lot of managers who oversee employees. 

‘At-will’ is no excuse

This is especially true in at-will organizations, in which managers tend to think they have absolute authority to terminate workers.

But you know better, and you’ve got the unenviable task of trying to get managers to see the light.

To help, employment law attorney Katie Anderson of the firm Strasburger & Price LLP shared on her firm’s blog the biggest documentation mistakes she’s seen.

We hand-picked six gaffes from her list that you’ll want to share with your managers (the list runs from bad to totally inexcusable):

6. Backdating

So you told managers they should’ve been documenting employee problems all along. Their first reaction may be to try to correct their inaction by creating new documents and making them look like old docs.

This almost never works — and almost always lands the employer (and manager) in hot water in court.

Any savvy IT person can look into a document’s metadata and find out when it was actually created — and employee-side attorneys will retain such IT folks to sniff out forgeries.

5. Leaving no room to improve

Some managers hate performance review time. And to save themselves the hassle, they’ll do things like give staffers a “5” on a 1-to-5 scale.

The problem here is it leaves no room for improvement. And these glowing reviews can lead to trouble if a “5” employee is ever fired.

Example: If a worker is told she’s performing well and is fired anyway, she could conclude that her termination was based on a discriminatory factor (race, gender, age, etc.) and sue.

4. Adding clunky language

Steer clear of legalese like “heretofore” and “whereof.” If it’s not how your managers would say it, that’s not how they should write it.

Also, avoid confusing directives like “It would be helpful if …” Make sure instructions are as direct as can be.

Example:?“Turn in all overtime requests by Friday.”

3. Using email too much

Yes, it’s important to create a paper trail, but it helps to talk to employees face to face as well.

The goal should be to balance email communication with in-person contact. Or, at the very least, follow up an email with personal visits.

Anderson points out 93% of all communication is non-verbal, and those cues are missed when documentation is delivered without personal contact.

2. Inconsistent enforcement

The best documentation won’t save you in court if policies and discipline aren’t applied consistently.

Sure, some employees are more likable and easier to deal with than others, but make sure managers don’t let their favorites “slide.”

If they’re going to punish one employee for being late, they should punish everyone for being late (unless, of course, there’s a reasonable excuse).

Anderson sees it a lot: perfectly defensible job actions being overturned because someone was treated differently.

1. Failing to document

We couldn’t resist. Of course, the No. 1 mistake is failing to document problems.

Even if a manager’s sure an employee will “turn it around,” there’s no valid reason to avoid documenting. Period.

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