Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. A new supervisor encounters a long-time employee with significant performance issues. As she discusses the proper protocol with her supervisor, she finds that her predecessor also identified these concerns, and she’s leaning toward terminating the employee. A trip to the Human Resources office reveals…nothing. There’s no paper trail to document the previous issues, and the HR Director (rightfully) expresses hesitation about terminating the employee for fear that he will claim he was never told about his performance issues. The termination must be based on some form of discrimination.
As you can imagine, we hear that story frequently, and it’s usually followed by the title question, “Should I document this?” In our opinion, that question, when directly connected to employee discipline, is too narrow a focus. We believe leaders would benefit from documenting numerous phases of their work, and if that was their habit, then the employee discipline documentation would take care of itself most of the time.
Let’s Flip This Thought on Its Head
At the core, the purpose of documentation is to create a contemporaneous record of an event, a decision, and/or a process. Ideally, documentation will provide a description or explanation of key factors, including:
- The parties involved.
- The actions and/or conversations that took place.
- The next steps identified.
- The follow-up period (if any).
When considered from that lens, there’s value to documentation that extends beyond employee discipline situations. Here are some of the scenarios where we’ve found documentation can help.
The best leaders we know have recurring coaching/mentoring conversations with their team members. Jotting a few notes from each dialogue and/or encouraging the team member to share their take-aways is a great way to document the discussions. Not only does it help us remember what we’ve discussed before, but it also gives us a mechanism to follow up, track growth, and even complete those pesky annual performance evaluations.
Most leaders (and teams) are skilled at documenting the final decision on a topic but often fail to document the process they used to come to a conclusion. In our experience, documenting the process offers several benefits, including capturing the factors that influenced the decision and providing transparency to others who may not have been in the room. It also helps to record our decision-making process when we are asked to reconsider a decision and/or circumstances force us to revisit it. When we can review the discussions we had last time, it’s easier to pinpoint where situations may have changed and now require a different course.
Execution is an (often) overlooked part of a strategy, but it’s critical in bridging the gap between vision and reality. We believe leaders benefit from documenting the progress made on strategic plans and projects because it encourages accountability and allows them to celebrate their successes with team members and stakeholders.
When leaders share feedback (positive or constructive), it’s a great idea to follow up with an email outlining the conversation. We’ve found that people receiving feedback tend to anticipate it being negative, which leads them to feel anxious and struggle to deeply listen to what’s being said. A brief email helps them reflect on the feedback in a moment that feels less threatening and likely gets us the result we want.
Reflection: Which type of documentation should you consider adding to your leadership habits?