Are you familiar with this scenario?

Supervisor walks into your office and says, “I have talked to [fill in the name] numerous times about being late, missing deadlines, incomplete work, etc. and I’m just ‘done’ with [fill in the name]. Can I fire [fill in the name]?” You then ask, “ May I see your documentation addressing the issues and how you have tried to help [fill in the name]?” Silence — followed by “We just discussed it because I didn’t want to be confrontational. So, I don’t have documentation.”

I bet you nodded your head in agreement the whole time saying, “I can’t let you terminate [fill in the name] without proper documentation.” Followed by a lengthy discussion about helping the supervisor document interactions with [fill in the name].

Supervisors are rarely happy with this answer. But supervisors need to understand that without documentation, an employee can claim that he or she was never warned and had no idea there was any problem with their performance. [1]

Without documentation, workplace decisions (including termination) are difficult to explain and defend.

Documentation, however, is one of the easiest issues for managers to do. You can train them to do it.

Why Document

Supervisors often think that documentation is busy work meant to protect themselves and their employer if an employee files a lawsuit. But it also shows the steps we’ve taken to help someone be successful. [2]

Documentation is important for decision making – it records all performance incidents, both negative and positive for your employees.

  • Provides evidence that supports unfavorable actions (discipline or termination)
  • Supplies proof that supports favorable actions (promotions or opportunities)
  • Offers evidence to justify salary decisions (increases, decreases, no raise)

If there is a lawsuit, your thorough documentation shows an employment decision based on facts where you addressed performance issues with the employee rather than another reason (such as illegal discrimination).[3]

You want your employees to be successful. If they don’t know there’s a problem with their performance, how can they make corrections? Documenting that you communicated the issue with the employee shows you made efforts to help them improve.

How to Document

Documentation should be written during or immediately after talking to the employee.

Not every action requires a formal meeting with a written warning. It’s okay to document informal talks. Just because an action doesn’t justify a formal meeting and a written warning or is the first incident doesn’t mean don’t document. Just put a simple note in the file that says, “I talked with [fill in the name] today about arriving at 9:30 am instead of when expected at 8:45 am. I reminded [fill in the name] to contact _________ before the shift if there is an issue.” The talk is now memorialized in the moment and supports later written warnings.

Remember to be specific.

  • Focus on the incident or behavior — Not the person
  • Identify the rule or policy violated
  • Restate any previous issues
  • Explain the expected standard of performance or wanted behavioral change
  • Determine consequences for not correcting performance or behavior
  • Indicate support for employee and willingness to help
  • Sign documentation — supervisor
  • Provide space for employee comments (if an employee chooses to do so)
  • Sign documentation — employee (this confirms that employee has read and understands the concerns (indicate to employee that a signature does not mean agreement, just acknowledgment of the conversation)

If they refuse to sign, ask another manager to witness that the employee received the document but declined to sign it.

And. . . be specific.

That means you provide specific examples, dates, times, impacts. For example, don’t say and then document, “you’re always late.” Tell them and document the day you are talking about and give the time they are supposed to be at work and the time arrived.

If there was a rule or policy violation, tell them what it was. Make sure you give them a copy of the written standard and include a copy of it with your documentation.

Let an employee know how you can help them. Outline any training and support that is available. This includes contact information and an offer to be available to them if there are questions about meeting expectations.


Thorough documentation helps

  • Employees understand performance or behavioral concerns — and how to address them.
  • Supervisors can see what good faith opportunities an employee receives to correct issues.
  • Employers know that a history of employee performance (both positive and negative) are used to defend and justify decisions.

One last thing

Document, Document, Document!

The next time you ask, “Is it documented?” I hope you hear, “Yes.”


This article shouldn’t be construed as legal advice. If you have detailed questions, they should be addressed directly with your labor and employment attorney.