Solid HR documentation keeps you and your employees accountable to measure their plans and progress.
But, of course, documentation is also crucial for reducing legal risk. If you don’t keep good records of employee performance and discipline, you won’t be able to prove that employer actions such as firings weren’t due to illegal discrimination or retaliation.
However, not all HR documentation is equally helpful.
In fact, if HR documentation uses the wrong language, focuses on the wrong things, or neglects important details, it might actually do more harm than good, both for legal risk and for employee relationships.
Here are some common mistakes that managers tend to make with their documentation.
Documentation Mistake 1: Failing to Stick to the Facts
Maybe it’s human nature to skip straight to judgments instead of calmly listing clear examples of observable behavior first.
But for the sake of clarity both for your employees and for your potential jurors, it’s better for managers to list the facts and keep any labels and value judgments to themselves.
That means leaving out assumptions about what has caused the behavior, what “kind of person” displays this behavior, or any other opinion or commentary on the behavior.
As we mentioned above, labels and judgments tend to invite defensiveness, escalate conflicts, and breed resentment. Clear descriptions of offending behavior, on the other hand, are difficult to argue with, and make it super clear to employees exactly what they did wrong — which helps them improve.
Plus, opinions and assumptions won’t help your organization in potential legal cases. Things like feelings, assumptions, and conjecture aren’t usually strong evidence. Lawyers are more interested in things like dates, times, quotes, witnesses and records that can help verify the case they’re trying to make.
Here are a few examples.
Applies a label: “Employee X was inconsiderate during the meeting.”
Sticks to the facts: “Employee X loudly interrupted Employee Y at least three times during our sales team meeting on February 3.”
Makes assumptions: “Because Employee Z has been out of the office so often, she has been missing assignment deadlines a lot.”
Sticks to the facts: “Employee Z has missed three of the project deadlines we outlined as a team in our meeting on October 10.”
Makes a judgment: “Being late is rude and shows that Employee B is not reliable.”
Sticks to the facts: “Employee B has been more than 20 minutes late for his shift on the following dates this month.”
Documentation Mistake 2: Failing to show empathy or authenticity
We already mentioned that negative labels can be detrimental to problem-solving and less than helpful in evidence-building. But we should also mention the obvious: Labels and scolding can make your managers come across as rude and inconsiderate, both to the employees involved and to potential juries.
When documentation feels harsh or disingenuous, it’s not going to help your personnel matters or convince a jury that your organization is a fair employer who does right by its employees.
The best HR documentation comes across as empathetic and authentic to employees and potential jurors by doing the following:
- Using a neutral tone instead of one that comes across as negative or arrogant (sticking to the facts, as we just discussed, goes a long way here)
- Describing incidents and conversations in plain English without any jargon or overly formal or legalistic language (this helps clarify what actually happened and what needs to improve)
- Sticking to the highlights of problematic behavior instead of detailing every minor infraction (this looks a lot like micromanaging or actively looking for problems)
- Including a detailed improvement plan for employees that makes expectations very clear and notes any training, guidance, mentorship, or assistance that the employer will provide to help them improve their behavior
The real heart of documentation is communicating a problem and highlighting a path for improvement. It’s a terrible feeling to be reprimanded without being given clear evidence of what you did or how to fix it. If employees don’t know what they’re expected to do or how they can get it done, they’ll have little chance of success.
Documentation Mistake 3: Failing to focus on workplace policies
Leaders who are serious about building a culture of civility at their workplaces — and protecting their companies from lawsuits in the process — must get specific about what kind of behavior is acceptable at work and what kind of behavior is not.
That requires establishing clear values and what we at ELI call value-linked behaviors.
Paying lip service to company values by plastering them throughout the office and website means little if leaders’ words and actions don’t prioritize those values. However, clarifying these values and value-linked behaviors in writing is also crucial. Behavioral expectations should be spelled out clearly in employee manuals and policies.
That way, when it’s time for managers to point out behavior that conflicts with company values, there’s a clear policy to guide them.
Some managers make the mistake of using legal terms, either on purpose or on accident, to describe employee incidents. Using terms like “harassment” or “reckless” or “substandard” or “negligence” in documentation can put your organization at increased legal risk because they may make it look like management has already admitted to violating the law in some way.
This is why it’s best for managers to stick to describing violations of company policies, whose standards are generally much higher than local harassment laws, and leave any legal language or conclusions to the experts in the HR or legal departments.
As always, if you’re looking for experts to partner with your organization to encourage healthy and compliant communication, we hope you’ll reach out to us at ELI. We specialize in helping employers of all sizes and budget levels cultivate workplace cultures of civility and respect. Click here to learn more about us and our training options. For more practical ways to improve your HR processes, check out our previous blog on HR documentation.