Q. How can I be better at documentation? I’ve been criticized for not sticking to the facts when I write, but if one of my employees demonstrates a continual pattern of conflict with others, I would say the “facts” are that the employee has a conflict-ridden personality.
A. Good documentation is clear, useful and measurable. To make your documentation more effective, imagine you are in the bleachers of a stadium, observing the behavior of people down below. Simply record the what, when, how and where. You may have a strong desire to include a psychological conclusion in your documentation, especially if you have observed the behavior for very long. However, you are not an expert on your employee’s personality no matter how long you have observed the employee’s behavior. You can see and hear conflict on the job, but you can’t see your employee’s personality. Many supervisors don’t understand that they do not need to arrive at a conclusion for documentation to be effective. Documentation that focuses on the underlying causes of behavior (also called armchair diagnosis) will attract the focus and attention of the reader and will undermine your objective -- correction of the problematic behavior.
Q. I have been documenting my employee’s performance issues for a couple of months. I have kept the notes private because I may need them to prove my case that the employee is not suitable for the position, and if I share the documentation, it will make this harder. Is this okay?
A. Documentation is first and foremost a communication tool to establish a record of events that have transpired, the employee’s responses to confrontations and corrective measures you’ve instituted to help your employee meet certain standards. At this stage, helping your employee change or improve is what’s key. If you construct documentation with no intent to share it with your employee, you risk the appearance of treating it as a diary or personal log where you share emotions or other inappropriate formulations of your observations and private thoughts. These can undermine whatever purpose you plan for the documentation later, as your documentation then becomes an obviously one-sided presentation that does not reflect the employee’s acknowledgement of your concerns, his or her reaction to them or plans and opportunities to make the changes you desire.
Q. What is the trickiest part of documentation, the part of the process that can be most challenging for supervisors? How does a supervisor create documentation that does not become a piece of paper that simply represents the supervisor’s word over that of the employee’s?
A. Documentation of employee performance is often difficult for a supervisor who does not understand how to separate his or her emotional reaction to the employee’s behavior and write effective notes that clearly support his or her position. Instead, the supervisor unwittingly slips into writing documentation that personally attacks the employee or makes judgments about the employee’s character. Frequently, a supervisor will insist that his or her documentation is accurate and objective, even though it demonstrates the classic misstep of focusing on the employee’s psychological makeup. A powerful technique, but one often omitted from supervisor documentation, is to provide concrete examples of what is being discussed -- complaint letters from customers, time cards showing proof of an employee’s lateness, a consultant’s analysis of the employee’s poor productivity. Documenting the employee’s perspective and response to your position also is powerful. If you do so, offer to let the employee sign off on what you have actually written, attesting to its accuracy. Whether the employee signs the statement is not as important as demonstrating that you actually offered the opportunity to do so, which shows you are dedicated to openness and transparency.