There is a saying in the Human Resources profession – if you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. Oftentimes when it comes to employee litigation it’s not who is right and who is wrong that determines the outcome… it’s who has the best documentation! The purpose of documentation is to create an accurate record of events, meetings, conversations, etc. at the time they happen for future reference. Here are some tips to help you maintain relevant and useful records no matter what your function in your organization:
- Be Timely – If something has happened that should be documented, don’t put it off until later. Human memory can be faulty and our own fears, prejudices and desires can color events with the passage of time. Written notes and records should indicate when they were created (date and time), and events being documented should be identified by date and time if possible.
- Be Specific – Be as exact as possible. For example, if you’re indicating a location “the west stairwell on the second floor” is better than “that stairwell.” Be sure to identify people by their first and last names, as well as titles. A series of events should be listed in chronological order.
- Paint a Picture – Make the reader see what you saw. “Leslie has a bad attitude” is open to interpretation and can mean many things. “When I asked Leslie for the daily sales report, she sighed loudly and rolled her eyes” is much more descriptive.
- Be Systematic – Have a system in place so that you can locate documents quickly and easily. Some people use nested folders while others use a specific naming convention or color coding. Whatever method you choose, stick to it and use it consistently.
- Just the Facts – Make certain that your documents are factual and not based on opinion or presumptions. Don’t speculate about unverified information or take situations out of context.
- Don’t Diagnose – Remember, you (probably) are not a doctor or a lawyer. For instance, if you have an employee who is behaving erratically you wouldn’t want to label him as “crazy” or “bipolar.” Likewise, you would not want to make a statement along the lines of “what she experienced is clearly sexual harassment.” Leave statements like that to the experts.
- Use an Active Voice – Using an active voice makes your statements clearer and more authoritative. “John slammed the door” is better than “the door was slammed by John.”
- Watch the Acronyms and Buzzwords – Be mindful when using acronyms and jargon specific to an occupation. For example, few outside of the Human Resources field would know that ADEA stands for the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. If you’re going to use an acronym, spell it out the first time then put the acronym in parentheses. For example, “Today’s topic is the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)…” This goes for jargon and buzzwords as well. Few outside the legal field, for example, would understand what it means to “unring the bell.”
- Be Clear and Concise – It can be a challenge to fully describe an event or situation without going into long and overly detailed explanations. As with any skill, the more you write the better you will become at it. As you become more experienced with documentation you’ll develop a natural sense for what should be included and what can be left out.
Being able to clearly, concisely and accurately record conversations, events or other happenings is a key skill of any professional. Mastering this skill will go a long way towards enhancing your status as a capable and respected manager!
National Director of Human Resources