Employers, here's why good documentation is da bomb.

Da bomb.

Documentation. What a pain! You have so many more important things to do. But taking the time to document is a good practice that may save you a lot of grief later.

I know that most of you already know what I'm about to say, but you can share this with your "operations" management.

No. 1. Good documentation provides you and your managers with a record. That's a big deal in itself, and it becomes an even bigger deal as time slips away and memories fade. In fact, you may move on to another job, and your poor successor may be left with trying to figure out what happened. Do unto others, and all that.

No. 2. Good documentation frees up valuable "hard drive" space in your brain. The older I get, the more my brain has become cluttered with all kinds of stuff, some important and some ridiculously trivial. If you document, you can actually "let go" mentally of what happened because it's all written down, freeing up more of your gray matter to store important things, like your kids' birthdays (just teasing - I know you would never forget that!) or to fret about the pressing issues of our time, like what's going to happen to Jocelyn Wildenstein now that she's been charged with assaulting her boyfriend.

"You think I'm scary? Try defending a discharge with no documentation!"

No. 3. Good documentation ensures fairness. Here's a scenario:

Let's say you discipline an employee, and after a few more strikes she is fired. Two years after that, she sues for wrongful termination. You are mad. You've never been sued before, and you take this as a personal insult. In your mind, the offense that resulted in her first write-up becomes worse and worse because you're angry. Let's say she was 20 minutes late coming to work without a good excuse. As you now "remember it" in your anger, the 20 minutes has morphed into a full-day no-call/no-show, which should have resulted in her termination for that alone. Before you have to say anything about it on the record, you go back and review the write-up, and see that she was only 20 minutes late, and actually did call, even though the absence was still unexcused under your policies. Isn't it better to know that before you testify under oath, say she did something she didn't do, and commit perjury (well, ok, maybe not perjury because you honestly believed the wrong story, but you get the point)? ANSWER: Yes.

"Oh, yeah - THAT'S the way it went down!"

It works the other way, too. Maybe you had a horrendous employee and were able to terminate him only after a great struggle. But now that he's been gone for a couple of years, you don't think about him much, and the magnitude of his true horrendousness (horrendosity?) has faded from your mind. Then he sues you, and when your company lawyer talks with you, you come across as weak and equivocal. Before you go on record in a deposition or on the witness stand, you review your documentation. Oh! My! Gosh! This guy was horrendous! It's a wonder he survived as long as he did! Now you can defend that termination with conviction! The jury is 100 percent on your side, assuming you didn't get summary judgment and avoid a trial altogether.

Either way, the documentation helps you view the situation as it really was, ensuring fairness to the employee -- and to you as the employer.

No. 4. Government agencies (like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and judges and juries value it. Yes, it's possible to document a complete fabrication. It's also possible to create a document long after the fact and backdate it to when it should have been created, which is another type of falsification. But agencies, judges, and juries don't assume a document is falsified. They generally assume that a document is genuine unless they are given a reason to believe otherwise.

Judge Judy.flickrCC.BillAldredge
"You documented! Good for you!"

Needless to say, I do not condone fabricating documentation! If you don't have documentation, you should simply testify truthfully about what happened to the best of your ability. But it's better to document truthfully at the time that the events at issue occurred. We all tend to take things more seriously if they're documented.

If you didn't document at the time, you can still do it after the fact, as long as you're honest about the date that the document was generated. If you're asked why you waited two years to write down what happened, you can simply say that you failed to document at the time and then after you got sued you thought it would be good to write down your recollections. Better late than never, right? It won't carry as much weight as contemporaneous documentation, and your memory may be off a bit with the passage of time, but it can still be helpful.

Image Credits: From flickr, Creative Commons license. Woman with bomb by TineyHo; Jocelyn Wildenstein by celebrityabc; little boy reading by Visa Kopu; Judge Judy by Bill Aldredge.

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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