Actions to take: Avoid giving the word "documentation" too much power in your mind. Keep accurate notes for all your work meetings. See the DOs and DON'Ts list below for more detail. When HR asks for documentation, compile the relevant notes with minimal exposition.
The first time most managers encounter the word "documentation," it is in reference to a poor performer. Things have gotten to a point where the manager needs to call up HR and talk about taking more serious steps. Before giving any recommendations, HR will always ask for evidence proving that the problem is serious, that it has continued for some time, and that the manager has attempted to address it through more informal means. "We'll need to see your documentation of the problem and the conversations you've had with the employee up to this point."
This context leads managers to dramatically misunderstand what "documentation" is. Imagine it. Your are dealing with a big issue. You've been hitting your head against it for months. The employee refuses to acknowledge their issue or make any kind of meaningful change. And the person you turn to for support says, "Prove that it's actually a problem, and prove that you've actually tried to do anything about it."
The natural reaction is to argue your case. Since it is a serious issue, you write up a multi-page memo explaining every detail of the issue, your conversations with the employee, your opinion on where this is headed, your opinion on the employee's mindset, etc. You want to absolutely convince your HR rep that it is time to take action, so you pour everything into this document.
You have just sunk your chances of moving forward with disciplinary or probationary action.
Documentation is just a record of your work. Nothing more, nothing less. When you hand HR something that "makes your case" about the situation, you are adding problematic elements. Stop thinking of documentation as some big, intense thing. Documentation is just notes. Anything you've written down is documentation. A sticky note with the line "Fb- missed deadline" stuck to a one-on-one sheet is documentation.
Now, there is a difference between good documentation and bad documentation. There is a difference between documentation that HR is satisfied with and documentation that is problematic for one reason or another. Documentation DOs and DON'Ts:
- DO make contemporaneous notes. Take your notes during or immediately after meetings or incidents. This is both a best practice and most legally defensible (which is something HR always has in the back of their minds).
- DO NOT write up notes about a conversation that happened weeks ago because you forgot to at the time. Even a minor error from a memory lapse will cause problems. "Honest mistake" looks a lot like "the boss intentionally making things up to make me look bad" to an angry employee or their lawyer.
- DO keep your notes completely factual. Describe observable behaviors that your employee engaged in and, if relevant, exact comments they made.
- DO NOT make notes that guess at your employee's motivation, willingness to improve, or anything else that relates to their thinking. First, as we discussed in one of the earliest posts on this blog, there is no way to prove what is going on in someone else's mind. Second, notes about an employee's motives will end up turning the spotlight on you and your motives.
- DO take notes as soon as you implement one-on-ones and DO take notes for all employees. Frankly, every professional should be taking notes at every work meeting. Employee discipline is not the primary (or secondary or tertiary) reason we take notes. Notes are about tracking work that has been done and work that needs to be done. Taking notes for all employee one-on-ones demonstrates that you are egalitarian and consistent in your management.
- DO NOT only take notes for problem employees. And DO NOT only begin taking notes after problems surface. Again, this shines a light on your motives—it looks like you've decided to build a case against this employee in order to get them fired.
When HR asks for your documentation, simply compile the notes you have that are relevant to the issue at hand. At most, give a two-sentence explanation of what a note means if it is unclear. HR may want to go over these conversations with you in more detail, but they'll do it verbally. Follow this advice, and you will be much more likely to get meaningful support from HR to help with your problem employee.
Finally, remember that firing someone is never your goal. Termination is the result of a failure: the employee's failure to improve to an acceptable standard and your failure to help them improve. Feel disappointed about it, feel resigned to it, but if you ever feel eager to fire someone, check yourself.