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By July 23, 2018August 9th, 2018Blog,

At least from an HR point of view, if it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen. We can’t tell you how many times we hear on the HR Hotline, and from colleagues, how often managers don’t memorialize conversations and agreements. Which often leads to problems and issues down the line and HR is left trying to fix or correct a situation.

No matter what the issue at hand is or the severity, proper documentation is critical for moving forward with any employment event, both the positive and the not so positive. When you call the HR Hotline there are two very common questions we ask, the first is, “What do your policies say?” and “do you have that in writing? Did you document that?” The answer is often, “no” or “sort of.” Documenting events and conversations can feel overwhelming, and we know that time is a very precious commodity for 501(c) Agencies Trust members. Memorializing conversation does take time, and I promise you that in the long run the time you spend to outline and document what was said and perhaps agreed to, will pay off. Get into the habit of making notes after your interactions with your employees. For those of you who may struggle here are a few hints on how to tackle documentation.

Think back to elementary school, and the teacher’s instructions in regard to writing a report: make sure to include the Who, What, When, Where and How. The same applies today regarding your documenting employment events.


Consider whom the documentation is about and whom the intended audience is. This should include future readers of the document; human resources, your boss, this person’s future manager, and worst case, a potential jury. Make sure to include full names of all involved as well as their position and department or program.


You should document your employee’s performance, the good and the not so good. Discussions, meetings, complaints, promotions, demotions, conflicts, attendance issues, potential ADA accommodations, FMLA or leave discussions, and many other business-related situations.

Make sure what you write down is accurate and to the point. Be specific, objective and detailed. State precisely what the employee may have done and said and what you, the manager, have done and said in response. Don’t make vague statements such as, “Melanie has a bad attitude.” Describe what the behavior looks like, how it manifests itself and what the results or consequences are. Make sure what you say is objective, factual, consistent, fair, and legal.

Make sure you include expectations for improvements needed with timeline/deadlines, things agreed upon as well as things not agreed upon, along with dates and times. Details matter whether the documentation is for performance improvement or stretch goals to help the employee reach that next position or grade level.


Events and conversations should be memorialized as soon as possible and as close as possible to the actual discussion. Don’t wait a day or two. Trying to reconstruct a meeting from memory is a dodgy practice. Memories fade and are faulty.

Not all documentation happens when something goes wrong, or a conversation goes sideways. Don’t forget about the hiring process. All that should be documented as well as the complaints, requests for leaves, possible ADA accommodations, corrective actions and after termination.


Where you decide to keep and store your documentation is also important. Privacy and confidentiality must be maintained. Many managers keep a notebook or file for each employee they supervise. Make sure that notebook or file is locked and secured so that wandering eyes and hands can’t accidentally happen upon it. In the end, official documentation must be kept in the employee’s personnel file.


How you document behavior, incidents and conversations are essential. Always strive for professionalism. Writing up information on any old piece of paper won’t cut it. Remember, you have no idea who might be viewing it in the future. Accuracy is paramount as are the details. Stick with actual actions, words and descriptive behavior, not any thoughts interpretations or opinions. Making a statement like: “Francis came back from lunch drunk. I asked her if she was drunk, she lied and screamed at me. She promptly fell asleep at her desk.” A better approach: “On Friday, March 30, 2018, at 1:15 pm Francis returned from lunch smelling of alcohol. When I approached her and asked if she had been drinking, she replied in a very loud voice “NO!” Eric and John heard her loud response from down the hall. She then stumbled to her office, sat in her chair, laid her head on the desk and closed her eyes.” The second example contained details and no interpretations or opinions. Avoid name calling as well as trying to interpret an employee’s actions or behavior.

Be sure to include the highlights of what was said; agreements made, commitments to improvements and timelines with agreed upon check-ins and due dates to avoid any future misunderstanding of what was said and agreed upon.

Bottom line, documentation is a manager and an employee’s friend as the goal is to help improve performance, support advancement and help keep all of us on track.

If you’d like more tips, information and best practices regarding documentation, tune into our Documenting Employee Events webinar. For a calendar of available HR webinars, please click here.

Have questions on an HR issue?

All 501(c) Agencies Trust members have access to HR Services, a confidential resource that can provide you with expert advice and counseling on all types of employment issues. Our toll-free number is (800) 358-2163 or you can email us at Remember, this service is part of your membership with the 501(c) Agencies Trust

The information contained in this article is not a substitute for legal advice or counsel.

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