BUSINESS OWNERS AND MANAGERS ALIKE, PLEASE READ—this may prevent you from responding to a legal claim from a current or former employee. Sorry, I had to get your attention. Now, more than ever (I apologize for the superlative) taking notes of discussions you have with your employees could make or break you.
With the need to shelter-in-place and to work from home, it is likely that your best HR or managerial instincts are taking a back seat to “just getting through the day.” It is also likely that your forms of communication have become more laxed (informal), scattered (email, text, tweet, phone call) or non-existent (gulp!). Additionally, if you are forced to furlough, lay off or terminate an employee, make sure you are documenting each step of the process and saving copies or centralizing your communications with employee(s).
Here are some simple tips on how to make conversations a little easier:
1. Conquer your fears
2. Do your homework—facts, notes, document everything
3. Be positive
4. Leave your emotions at the door
5. Find the right setting (if you can)
6. Get a witness if needed
7. Be consistent
8. Keep it confidential
9. Loop back to review the situation
How to Keep These Records
So you understand why it’s important to record workplace conversations as often as possible. But how do you ensure that these records are kept properly? How do you prevent your notes from getting lost? The answer is quite simple—use a document management system (DMS).
Whether you type your notes about the conversation on your laptop or jot them down on a legal pad, you can enter the record into a DMS by either saving the file or scanning it into your computer. You can then attach the record to the appropriate employee’s file, and it will stay there until you choose to delete it. You don’t have to worry about the notes being misplaced or forgetting to put them in the right folder. The notes you need are always on hand if you ever need to address something pertaining to an old conversation.
This will save your company time and money, while saving you a lot of headaches; after all, you already have enough on your plate.
Why Documentation Is Important
Without documentation, an employee’s allegations become a “he said, she said” scenario, no matter how fabricated the story may be. Documentation is critical to refute claims of unfair, discriminatory and retaliatory practices, and meticulous records of each and every counseling session with a poor performer can rebut any claims that he was a stellar employee. Documentation justifies that your actions and communications were legitimate and taken out of business necessity. It also helps your staff to improve. An employee, angry at your statements or focused on defending his position, may not listen to the message you are trying to convey. But providing written documentation of your conversation to the employee reinforces your statements by allowing him to revisit the information when he is calmer.
What Should Be Documented
Certain types of verbal communications in the workplace should always be documented. For example, a small-business manager must record in writing all counseling sessions and verbal warnings given to an employee. Assess other types of communication — such as voicemails, face-to-face meetings and conference calls — to determine if they are important enough to document. Don’t document every verbal communication — or you would never have time for actual work — but decisions, action items and other critical conversations should be recorded. In some situations, whether you should document the conversation depends on the employee. For example, you might not transcribe a voicemail informing you that an employee is stuck in traffic, if it is an isolated occurrence. But this type of documentation would be important if you were planning to discipline the employee for ongoing tardiness.
How To Document Verbal Conversations
Create a written document, memorandum or email for every important conversation, verbal warning or counseling session. Include who was present for the conversation, a summary of the key issues that were discussed and the responses given by the employee. The document should also set forth any mutually agreed solutions, future review dates and consequences for failure to improve. Notations to yourself are better than nothing, and emails to another manager confirming your conversation with the employee is even better, but the most effective documentation is something you formally share with the employee. Maintain a copy of the documentation in your supervisor file for future reference.
Documentation Mistakes To Avoid
Include the date on each piece of documentation you create. Ideally, use a system where the date cannot be disputed — such as a time-stamped email — to verify that the documentation was created at the time of the incident. Without a date, your documentation may be worthless as evidence. Require an employee to sign your written documentation to acknowledge his receipt of the document. Failing to require a signature or obtain other evidence of delivery — such as an email receipt notification or signed proof of service — allows the employee to claim he was never aware of the issues.