You just had a good conversation with an employee where you gave them some difficult feedback, but they seem committed to improving their performance. The meeting ended on a high note and as you sit back down at your desk you think, “Do I need to document this?”
The truth is documenting any counseling conversation isn’t just a good idea, it’s an essential part of the disciplinary process. While it can take additional time, and often ratchets up the anxiety levels, when you don’t follow through with documentation you can hurt both the employee and the company.
So how do you know when it’s appropriate to move from strictly coaching the employee, to documenting his performance as part of a progressive discipline process? To answer that question, let’s look at the reasons why you would want to formally document an issue.
You Start to See a Pattern
When you address an issue for the first time, it usually doesn’t rise to the level of needing formal documentation. Maybe your employee is late to work, misses a deadline, or fails to check out with the supervisor before leaving. As one-off instances or first-time offenses, these issues aren’t worth documenting in a formal way. Typically, you’d provide coaching and support and hope the employee can correct the issue quickly.
If the issue repeats, or if the performance continues to decline, a pattern is developing and it’s time to add formal documentation to your progressive discipline process. A written summary of your feedback signals that you’re serious about needing to see improvement.
The Problem Is Already Serious
Some behaviors and performance issues present themselves for the first time at a serious and urgent level requiring you to document the issue immediately. Maybe your employee has a verbal argument with a teammate, is rude to a guest, or makes a mistake that costs the company repeat business. The problem is already serious enough that you might choose to address it by going directly to the progressive discipline process and issuing a written warning.
You Have Concerns about Legal Action
There are occasions where you just want a written record of an issue, conversation, or action you took, in case legal action is initiated at some later date. For example, you might want written documentation of your investigation into a claim of sexual harassment, summaries of your interviews regarding a theft, or an historical record of issues or interactions that didn’t feel quite “right” to you. Trust your instincts.
The Issue is Job Threatening
Conversations informing employees that their behavior or performance is at a point where it may be job threatening are laden with stress and anxiety. Employees’ defenses get triggered and many emotionally shut down, no longer comprehending what you’re saying to them.
When it gets to that point, for the employee’s sake, you’ll want to deliver your feedback several times in a variety of formats. A written document that they can reread later will help the employee absorb your message, and will help to ensure there are no misunderstandings about the nature of the problem and consequences if it’s not corrected.
Crafting and delivering documentation is an essential leadership skill to develop and incorporate it into your coaching and counseling process. A well written summary of your conversation reinforces your feedback for employees and protects you and the company in case of legal action.
You can learn more tools and strategies to prepare for, conduct, and document tough conversations in my book, “You Have to Say the Words” available here.