Many managers and most small business founders hate the thought of documentation of employee issues. “I don’t have time.” “I don’t want to upset him by writing it down.” “I don’t know what to say.” Standard excuses all. But wrong.

  • Recently I was talking with a store owner about a problem employee – one who did not follow basic practices, had a tendency to hide from work, and often got angry. We had talked about dealing with this employee on these same topics 18 months ago. Now the owner was quite upset that the unemployment decision had gone against the company.
  • But, had he done any of the documentation over this period of time – no. Did he document his discussions with the employee about the problems before firing him – no. Is this unusual? Sadly also no.

Documentation can be done quite easily much of the time. Got an employee coming in late time and again? Make a simple record on your calendar if you do not have an automated time-keeping system. Talked with an employee informally about a problem? Make a short note for your records so that if it happens again you have the info you need to refer to that informal counseling when you have to write a warning or more.

The value to you of doing simple documentation of positive and negative performance or attitude issues is quite high. It allows you to know who to promote, who to give pay raises to, who might benefit from some training, and who needs more formal efforts. When it is about a problem, your records can help you avoid paying higher unemployment costs and deal with regulatory or legal challenges.

You can maintain ‘working records’ in any simple format that works. These records should have protection for privacy reasons. Such records are dated but, unlike formal personnel files, they do not have to be signed by the employee. They support coaching, counseling, performance reviews, and other employment actions. Such records need to be accurate, state the behavior or attitude at issue, and be dated. You can do this electronically or hand-write them.

Here are working records managers can legally keep. If you do so, be sure to destroy them after 12 months or, if you have performance reviews, following the period of review. Some should be retained and put them in the master personnel file after inclusion in a review. Negative records which are unsigned must be destroyed.

  • Commendations from customers, co-workers, management, outside agencies
  • ‘Attaboys’ you record
  • Employee-provided status reports, performance notes
  • Contributions to the organization, such as: work over and above job duties, special projects, suggestions
  • Coaching records
  • Records of issues or problems and counseling
  • Complaints from customers, co-workers, management, outside agencies
  • Disciplinary records

Learning to regularly keep simple records and other documentation is a basic aspect of risk management. More importantly, it helps ensure you take both positive and negative actions based on real data and not on the ‘halo effect’ of most recent actions or in a momentary flare of anger or enthusiasm.

Figure out what works for you and start making this a habit now.