Documentation of your employees’ performance and their conduct at work is becoming one of the most important tasks of management. It requires attention to detail that’s time consuming but it can save your company thousands of dollars if an employee relationship goes sour and you need to justify disciplinary action or even termination of their employment.
Take a typical case of an employee whose performance is substandard. You will usually have a discussion with them in which you outline their performance problems and suggest corrective action. The same situation applies to employees whose personal conduct at work is unsatisfactory. Behaviour such as persistent bullying or foul language should lead to disciplinary action, but before you take such action you need to be sure you have the legal basis to do so.
In either case, if there are any future repercussions, such as a claim of harassment or unfair dismissal against you then a documented record of actual events and discussions is your best defence.
Establish a firm legal footing before acting
Most employers are legally constrained in their ability to discipline employees or terminate their employment. The burden of proof is usually on the employer to show that an employee’s performance or conduct is so poor that it merits corrective action or dismissal.
Documentation is an essential part of this proof. If an employer takes accurate and detailed notes of all actions and conversations related to disciplinary matters and these notes were made at the time, or shortly after the time the actions and conversations took place, courts are more likely to see the employer’s side of the argument than if the defence is based on memory.
Having a detailed record of an employee’s performance or conduct issues can even help avoid a lawsuit ever eventuating in the first place. The employee’s attorney will be less likely to proceed with a lawsuit and more likely to accept a compromise if your records are comprehensive and detailed than if they are sketchy or nonexistent.
Recording the proceedings
A formal process is useful to ensure all necessary actions get covered off. You need a formal outline to guide any disciplinary meeting as well as to help you record details of what happened and what was said. Begin with a note of the date and time of the meeting, the names and job titles of those present, and the meeting’s location. Before the meeting begins write down all the reasons for holding it; this includes full details of the employee’s performance or conduct issues and the points that you intend to raise with them at the meeting.
Take notes during the meeting and do a complete write-up immediately afterwards. Where possible, record the actual quotes from all parties instead of just outlining what was said. If you give the employee a course for improvement and a deadline for accomplishing the corrective measures, note this as well.
Record the details of your company’s policies that the employee has contravened if this is the case. If you provide the employee with anything in writing, append a copy to the meeting record. If the employee’s supervisor has also taken notes, ensure these are fully written up by them immediately after the meeting and that they are appended to the record of proceedings. Remember that this is confidential information and restricted to people on a ‘need to know’ basis. Allowing it to spread throughout the business could expose you to a lawsuit even if everything you’ve done is justified.
There’s always risk
If an employee sues your business for wrongful termination you may find that the outcome is dependent on a jury’s decision. Juries are far more likely to side with an employer that can prove they acted fairly and impartially by presenting an accurate record of everything that’s happened including any pre-dismissal counselling and the performance or conduct that led to the dismissal.
Terminating any employee always involves an element of risk and justifies the effort you put into following proper procedures. It’s also best to obtain legal advice before terminating an employee so that you are aware of just how much risk there will be.
But documentation in human resources management isn’t just for that purpose. It offers the much more positive aspects of tracking employee performance so they can be commended on their achievements for instance, and of reviewing what training they have had when a promotion opportunity comes up. Keeping records of information like this contributes to a better, more efficient workplace overall.