The Importance of Documentation...Let Me Count the Ways

One of the things we in HR advocate is to document.  We recommend that our managers memorialize their interviews by documenting the candidate's answers.  After coaching our employees, we are advised to record some notes about the interaction.  We write quite a bit when we complete our employees' performance evaluations, and this is also the case when we might have to justify placing an employee on disciplinary action.

Reasons for Documentation

Why do we do it?  It answers the questions Who, What, Where, and When.  I remember years ago receiving a piece of advice from an attorney.  It was simple yet impactful: "If it's not documented, it didn't happen" (at least in the eyes of the court per this attorney's opinion).  Another attorney said to me: "What do you know and what can you show?"  I don't know about you, but as a career Human Resources professional, these little tidbits of advice stuck with me and became litmus tests with each new employee relations issue.

Why is it important?  It establishes a record of employment actions taken and the reasons for the actions.  It informs employees of what is expected of them and the consequences if they don't meet expectations.  Discussion without documentation equals misunderstandings.  And finally, it brings about fair and equitable treatment.  No one wants to be blindsided or treated differently than other employees.

First Impressions with the EEOC

Many of us will at some point have the good fortune of receiving a charge from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  This is due to a current or a former employee believing that they were discriminated against because of their age, race, religion, and/or other protected classifications, including workplace/sexual harassment.  When this happens, we will be required to produce what is commonly called, a position statement.  Trust me.  Once you receive an EEOC charge, a) you won't forget it, and b) you will quickly hunt for every piece of documentation anyone might have which pertains to the charge, as you will be required to defend your actions.  Most of us partner with counsel on the completion of our position statements.  Your attorney will interview those who have first-hand knowledge so your organization can defend itself against the charge, and they will request any and all documentation which will support your and your organization's position.  

According to Ron Chapman, Jr. and Vicki Tall in 'Bad Position Statements Can Sink An Employer's Defense', "Not only is a position statement an opportunity to explain why the complainant’s allegations are false, it also serves as the first impression the employer will make with the EEOC—which can have lasting effects."  

As mentioned, employees who have first-hand knowledge pertaining to the charge will be interviewed.  They must tell the truth because if the case should some day go to trial, they will be placed under oath to testify to the factual accuracy of their testimony.  Prior to submitting the position statement to the EEOC, they will be asked to confirm the accuracy of their information.  Putting in extra effort up front will be preferable to the time and cost involved should holes be found in the information later on, particularly if it goes to trial.  

Documentation Aids Our Institutional Memory

Over time, people in organizations change roles and may leave the organization.  New employees come, some stay and some go.  Documentation provides us with evidence when our collective organizational memory fails us - and it will fail us.  When I train employees who have been newly promoted to supervisors, I advise them to document conversations with their employees, particularly if they think it's something that they will want to remember - even if you have to write it down on a napkin.  They laugh, but they also thank me for suggesting it when a piece of paper might not have been handy in the moment.

Regardless of the position you may hold or the type of work you may do, there will undoubtedly be instances where you should document.  Just think of all of the things we document – a report, a project or process, a recommendation, medical leave such as FMLA, a policy, pay and recruiting practices, a proposal - the list goes on and on.   

Our work lives move at a fast clip, and we're attempting to multi-task in order to meet multiple priorities, so it behooves us to jot down things we wish to remember.  If you focus on documenting for 21 days, it will become a habit, and one that you will thank yourself later for picking up.

Document early.  Don't wait.  Good luck.

End Notes  

Bad Position Statements Can Sink An Employer's Defense, Ron Chapman, Jr. and Vicki Tall, December 8, 2017

Documentation Training for Leaders, Society for Human Resource Management, March 2017