You can help limit your organization’s legal liability by counseling managers to keep three basic principles in mind when documenting discipline.
Documentation should be:
1. Immediate. Managers should take notes right after an incident occurs. It’s much harder for an employee to cast doubt on the boss’s motives if the written explanation comes right after the action.
2. Accurate and believable. When an outside observer (judge, jury or EEO investigator) is called to judge your side of the story, detailed observations add authenticity. The more specific the documentation, the greater the credibility.
Example: Instead of noting that “Bill’s work has been sloppy lately,” it’s better to note, “In each of his last three reports, Bill had at least two important accounting mistakes that needed revisions.”
3. Agreed upon. If both sides agree on what happened, it’s much tougher for either side to later change claims. Try to get employees involved in the documentation process.
Managers should ask the employee to summarize her input in writing, and then compare it to their own recollections. If they can’t reach an agreement, try to get detailed statements from witnesses.
How would it read in court?
When documenting employee shortcomings, always have this key question in mind: “How would this sound if it were read aloud in court?”
If the language used even suggests a discriminatory or retaliatory motive, the organization could find itself in legal trouble.
So before managers even put a single word on paper, they should ask themselves these questions:
- Do I restrict my written comments to an employee’s on-the-job performance?
- Do I remain objective when it comes to analyzing an employee’s work?
- Do I consider how my words may be construed as unprofessional, demeaning or sarcastic?
- Do I make certain that I get all the facts from all involved parties?
Even the most informal note tossed into an employee’s file should meet those criteria.