Documentation Done Right

As it turns out the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in the last two years of public service are what to say to correct unacceptable employee behavior and how to document it. Our City’s insurance pool provides trainings for supervisors in how to maintain supervisor’s files and how to conduct progressive discipline.

 The trainings are developed and conducted by an attorney who represented both employees and municipalities in wrongful termination suits. She’s seen it all over the years – the good, the bad, and the ugly – so she knows what she’s talking about.

 The first training I went to focused heavily on what an entry in a supervisor’s file should look like. The main elements were: 1) be brief, 2) always include date, persons present, and what was said, 3) Use descriptive words, not conclusions, and 4) Never insert personal opinions.

 Using descriptive words and not inserting personal opinions appear to be the most challenging for supervisors. Concluding that someone isn’t a “team player” or that they have some other character flaw is where most of us jump to. It may take some retraining of our thinking to be able to describe the actual events that occurred.

 Since our employment attorney had so many examples of bad supervisor notes, she shared a few with us:

 1.  May 6. I counseled Brian this morning about needing to be a team player. He isn’t acting like one. He said he would try to do better. (No year. No description of unacceptable behavior / event. No specific remedy.

2.   May 6, 2008. Spoke to Brian re 15 minutes late for work. His lame excuse this time: a flat tire. Last time it was his psycho wife. Better not happen again. (Personal opinion. Not sure if employee was told that behavior was unacceptable or the consequences for it happening again.)

 A better example:

 May 6, 2008

This morning Brian was 15 minutes late for work. This is the second time in 2 weeks (the first time it was 10 minutes.) I called him into my office to talk to him about it. I told him being late was unacceptable, as it forced others to cover for him. I also told him this was the second time in 2 weeks and if it happened again he may be looking at discipline. He said he understood, that he had a flat tire this morning, and his wife needed him the last time. He said he would see to it that it did not happen again.

 The details of “what was said” are the subject of a whole series of other trainings since they are typically disciplinary in nature, but you get the idea.

 I’ve shared this documentation method with friends who are not supervisors as well since being able to describe behavior and documenting it can be useful in other situations. In a municipality near ours, for example, an employee has been able to prove that her supervisor retaliated against her because of notes that she has taken since the day he started as her boss.

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