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If you’ve ever spoken to someone on our team you will have heard: Document, document, document. But just writing things down isn’t enough. We all need to recognize and avoid common documentation mistakes.
Although the purpose of documentation is to minimize risks, it can come back to haunt if it’s done wrong. And if it’s not done at all, the employer is almost certain to be seen as the “big, bad employer” and a litigating employee is likely to be seen as the “poor, innocent employee.
Although HR professionals usually understand the importance of carefully documenting various aspects of the employment relationship—especially hiring, training, misconduct, performance, investigations, complaints, terminations, etc.—supervisors don’t always keep documentation top of mind. And that’s why it is important to communicate to supervisors that it’s not about whether you did something for the right reason. Instead it’s about whether you can prove that you did. And that’s done through documentation.
Consider the audience
One mistake occurs when a documenter doesn’t think about who might eventually read the documentation. So who should an employer expect the audience to be? In a dispute, all types of documentation end up before an array of people—the employee, the employee’s lawyer, administrative agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, judges, and juries.
What do these audiences expect? Professional, clear, fair, rational, and timely documentation. Every piece of documentation should be something you would be willing to read on the witness stand in front of a jury, she says. Make sure to use complete sentences, correct grammar, and appropriate punctuation. It needs to be complete, legible, and filed where it can be found.
Documentation also needs to be easily understood and honest. The documentation file is not the place for exaggeration. It also should communicate the business-based reason for an employer’s decision. Timeliness is important, because delay undermines the legitimate reason for an action, and delayed documentation looks suspicious.
The list of common mistakes is long, but among them are: