Best Practices for Documenting Employee Behavior

Hopefully, you don’t need to ever come down on an employee for performance or disciplinary problems. Unfortunately, that is a vain hope in many companies. If you do need to take disciplinary action, then you need to have solid documentation in place, as well as have established clear expectations for every employee throughout their employment. How should you properly document employee behavior so that if termination is required you have what you need to avoid problems? Here are some solid best practices.

Set Clear Expectations

Everything starts with having a good employee handbook and going over at least basic explanations verbally. Don’t assume that your new employee reads the entire handbook, even if you give them ample time to do so. Remember that people learn and need things explained in different ways. 

Both performance and behavioral expectations need to be covered. “Be here on time,” is too vague. “I need you at your desk and ready to work at 8:00 am” is much better. The employee handbook should also include things like a definition of harassment, a solid computer use policy, etc.  The way your handbook is written and the tone it takes can shape the way employees view your company, and employees should understand that what you have prepared will be followed. 

Get the Facts

Before writing any employee up, a supervisor should always get facts from all parties involved. That information will help you to determine the best course of action moving forward.

Criticize the Conduct, not the Person

When writing somebody up, always be specific about the problem behaviors. Generalizations are easy for an attorney to defend against. Avoid anything that sounds like an attack against their character or, worse, their demographics. Never speculate on the reasons for their problems, editorialize or attempt to “diagnose” your employee with a mental illness. And never call an employee lazy, irresponsible, a jerk, or something similar in official documentation. 

Avoid Generalizations

Instead of saying “Always late back from lunch,” keep a record of the times the person was late back from lunch. What days? How late were they? Having a chart of documented tardiness can help uncover the possibility of the behavior not being as bad as you may have assumed it to be or, if it is as bad, it is much harder to argue with. Massive generalizations are very easy for an attorney to fight.

Include Their Explanation

Your employee might offer an explanation or excuse for their behavior.  Regardless of whether you believe them, always include that explanation in your written documentation; it demonstrates that you are trying to be fair and solve the problem. It also allows you to track what reasons they might frequently use—something that could be indicative of a deeper issue. 

For example, it might be an issue of personal responsibility, or it might be something that indicates they could use a reminder of your EAP’s counseling services. If their explanation indicates a potential ADA-related issue, then it is important to detail the information and be willing to start a conversation about what accommodations they might need. 

Include Consequences

We’ve all heard the adage that we can choose our behaviors, but not our consequences. It’s true in the workplace, too. It’s important that you state what the consequence will be if the employee’s behavior is not addressed—essentially, a written warning of what will occur.

Threatening to fire somebody immediately puts you on an adversarial footing and is almost always counterproductive.

Once an employee has been put on notice, record the time, date, and exact wording of the warning. This information may be used as evidence should a termination ultimately occur. 

Develop a Plan to Fix the Problem

In many cases, you may be working with a good employee who has one problem—and that means you may be able to help them overcome it. An improvement plan allows you and the employee to both move forward. Consequences should not be discussed in employee coaching sessions designed to fix the behavior.

It’s important to keep this process as free of conflict as possible, and to see it as coaching rather than discipline. Be specific and realistic; the performance plan should refer to the specific problem(s) and provide specific steps to help them improve and include deadlines that are specific and reasonable. Be clear in your expectations, avoiding statements like “I expect you to turn things around immediately,” which is both vague and adversarial.

You should then follow up regularly, including at any stated deadlines. Be aware that you may need to provide them with training to fix the problem and, in some cases, you may need to adjust your expectations. For example, you may have an employee who is scheduled to work from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm, but he or she arrives late several times each week. When you talk to them you might find out it’s because they have to get their elementary school-age child on the bus. A solution would be to discuss shifting their hours from 8:45 to 5:45 pm. If they agree, the problem could be resolved.

Document Right Away

Make sure to write everything down immediately after, or even during, the meeting with the employee to provide you an accurate, factual record of your conversation. Detail exactly what you and they said and any agreements were made. Waiting any length of time almost guarantees that you will forget something important—and it could be called into question later.

Use a standard write up form for all employees—and request that they sign and date it. Allow them to write down any disagreements they may have with the document—particularly if they refuse to sign it.

Store Documentation Properly

Employee write ups are confidential—just like any other HR document. The only people who should be able to see it are the manager, HR and, if the employee transfers, their next manager within the company.

Original documents should be provided to your company’s Human Resource Department for safekeeping in locked storage, with a copy provided to the manager and to the employee. If the document is digitized, it should be encrypted and kept on a secure system.

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