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Oops! Here's What Happens When Managers Don’t Document Key Employee Conversations

How many times have you had a manager come to you with a plan to fire a “problem employee,” only to see stellar performance records for the employee on file? How can we support that kind of decision, knowing it opens the employer up to liability and isn't fair to the employee?

As frustrating as this might be, it’s an incredibly common occurrence in workplaces both large and small. Today, we’ll explore the best ways to capture and store that performance information so that you can help your managers avoid this problem.

What Information You Should Capture

There’s a concept outlined in The Power of Moments called “backward integrated design.” This is essentially about designing a process or approach with the intended result in mind. All too often we approach the process of capturing performance conversations as a simple “check the box” activity, but in reality there’s more to it. Managers should be encouraged to capture performance data fairly and accurately, but they also need to be thinking about the potential outcomes and how the data they’re gathering will support those outcomes.

For example, there are plenty of times when a manager can give feedback to an employee on performance and that employee actually improves their results. At the same time, there are times when performance doesn’t improve, which means further action may need to be taken.

When capturing information, managers should cover the essential components:

  • Who they met with
  • What the conversation was about
  • The date of the discussion
  • Any recommendations on how to improve

The last piece of this is important, especially if there are repeated issues, because managers can demonstrate that they have recommended a course of action that the employee failed to follow. Capturing these types of information can help the manager to pursue the best follow-up course of action. Additionally, be sure to follow your process. If you have a verbal or written warning about performance issues, go ahead and lay those out clearly so employees understand where they are in the process and the seriousness of the issue.

How to Store This Information

In the past, I was coaching a manager through the process of counseling an employee for performance issues. When I met with the manager, he had a handful of sticky notes on his desk that related to the employee issues. It turns out he was keeping track of the entire discussion via a series of sticky notes, which is an inappropriate medium for all kinds of reasons. Not only were they just sitting there on his desk for anyone to see, but they also could be misplaced, which means critical information is lost.

In all seriousness, one of the simplest and most effective ways to capture information is to email yourself the details. That’s it. Then, by filing those messages in the appropriate folder, you make the process incredibly simple. When it comes time for performance reviews, you can simply review those comments and use them as your guide for delivering an accurate performance summary. Or, if the situation warrants more drastic action from HR, then those notes can help to provide a comprehensive perspective of the ongoing issue.

The more in-depth the issue is, the more likely you'll need to transition to a more comprehensive process to track and manage the information. For instance, if the problem involves policy violations or tracking progressive warnings, an employee relations case management tool can help to ensure that those are not only documented but also that they are treated consistently on the back end. In the event of an issue or a turnover in management, that information will also live on in the system instead of being potentially deleted with someone's email when they leave.

I leave you with this powerful message: Years ago in a training session with a series of Department of Labor and OFCCP auditors, someone asked the trainers what would happen if the employer took an action (hiring, termination, promotions, discipline, etc.) but had no documentation to back up the decision. The answer still chills me. The auditor told her that in the absence of documentation, the government would assume that the employer had done the wrong thing and simply hidden the evidence. This is a powerful reminder for all of us to be capturing the right information in the right way, because you never know when you might need it.

Ben Eubanks
Ben Eubanks

Ben Eubanks is the Principal Analyst at Lighthouse Research. He also founded upstartHR.com and hosts We're Only Human, a podcast focused on the intersection of people and technology in the workplace.