I recently attended a labor law conference by Ogletree Deakins, one of the largest labor and employment law firms in the country and recently named Law Firm of the Year by U.S. News & World Report.  I like attending this particular conference, because it’s four days of nonstop education conducted by attorneys who are experts in their field.  I came across the following Ogletree guidelines (edited) for personnel documentation while I was flipping through the conference materials:

1.      Prepare for the appraisal or disciplinary meeting.  Create a script for the meeting that is reasonable, with objective goals for the session.  If the meeting is an evaluation of performance, include objectives for the performance period, and fully discuss them with the employee.  If the meeting is disciplinary, outline points that explain the problem being addressed, as well as objectives for correcting or resolving the issue for the future.  The script may also assist you later, if you are asked to recall the substance of your discussion with the employee.

2.      Choose an appropriate setting for the meeting: For either performance appraisals or disciplinary meetings, neutral territory is best.  Although managers normally feel more comfortable in their own offices, such territory may send the wrong message and create an adversarial situation that fuels tension while undermining any positive message that might be attempted.

3.      Deliver the message clearly, and document fully — use simple language.  Whether the message is one informing the employee of poor performance or imposing discipline, the information must be clearly understood to have the maximum impact.  By minimizing poor performance or actions that warrant discipline, managers expose the company to liability.  Be sure the primary points are communicated well and documented completely.

4.      Follow up.  An important aspect of both the appraisal process and the disciplinary process is following up to ensure the objectives set forth in the initial meeting have been met, and the appropriate change in performance or behavior has happened.  As in the initial meeting, careful planning, supportive goal-setting and clear communication are critical — and documentation is key.

I wholeheartedly agree with these guidelines.  Another documentation trick I like is to e-mail the individual after the meeting to recap the conversation, with a few bullet points from the discussion.  This will also establish expectations.  The e-mail is date- and time-stamped, which can become very handy if further action is needed later.

As with everything in HR, consistency is key — applying these tips and best practices can help keep you out of court.

For advice on personnel documentation, contact us.