Those of us in employment law and human resources think a lot about documentation. Some of it has to do with potential legal liability and some has to do with just recording what happened or was decided, for clarity and future reference. Like the “many moods, the many shades, the many sides of George Costanza,” of Seinfeld fame, there are many sides to documentation. Herewith a few of my thoughts:
Email — or “evidence mail” as some lawyers say — has become king. It’s so convenient and easy to use, that everyone in the workplace uses it. And at the same time creates a written record of what’s going on, what employees are saying, what managers are doing, and so on. Lawyers love email. Employers and employees may love it less if it comes back to haunt them.
Documentation is not necessarily accurate. After conducting many investigations in which complainants provide extensive, detailed written documentation of events, sometimes covering several years, I’ve come to a tentative conclusion: It’s often not the truth. I’m talking here about page upon page, usually single-spaced, documents rehearsing in detail often-tiny interactions and events, many of which don’t quite make sense. You read this type of documentation and often (1) wonder how the person remembers all this; (2) have a hard time staying awake; and (3) question why anyone would do what the complainant alleges the wrongdoer did.
Documentation is best created contemporaneously. The gold standard is an account of an event or conversation written while or shortly after it occurred. The closer to the event, the more credibility a document has because inaccurate memory has less opportunity to intervene. The documentation need not be long or super-detailed, but it must include the key information (“I told X she would be terminated if Y happened again.”) To be really gold-plated, the document should indicate when it was written, who wrote it, and when the event occurred.
But it’s OK to create documentation after the fact. You have to be honest about when it was created, but a document prepared based on memory, review of calendars and emails, and miscellaneous other reminders is better than nothing. Some will say, “If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen,” but actually it’s all evidence, of varying credibility. So a coherent, after-the -fact documentation that indicates its sources can be better than nothing.
What are your reflections on documentation in the workplace? ~Amy Stephson