Why Is Documentation Important?

Learn the multiple reasons for keeping documentation when managing performance.

One topic that comes hand in hand with performance management is documentation or, more specifically, HR’s need for documentation in a variety of scenarios. In the classic case, if you need to begin proceedings to terminate an employee, you will be asked for documentation to support that decision. It’s important to realize that this is not HR’s attempt to second-guess or circumvent your decision. This is a legal requirement: The company needs to have admissible evidence on hand in the event that the terminated employee alleges discrimination, wrongful termination, or breach of contract.

For that reason, HR will often have “official” places where documentation must live. If you do not keep documentation there, no action will be possible until you do. In many cases, HR will work with you to assemble that documentation, but much of the time it will not be something you can reasonably assemble after the fact. If the employee didn’t meet your expectations back in March, you need to have notes from March to that effect, or it will seem like you are trying to retroactively come up with something. (It will also undercut your management’s faith in you as a leader: “Why didn’t you do something about it back then?”) Tracking incidents, examples, and observations needs to be something you’re doing in real time, not months after the fact.

Aside from the admittedly negative scenarios around the need for documentation, you’ll want to keep data on your employees for positive scenarios, too. When writing a performance review of your employee, for example, make sure you don’t fall victim to “Recency Bias,” in which only the most recent actions show up in the review because they’re top-of-mind as you write it.

Also, your boss might ask you an on-the-spot question about someone on your team, and you need to have something to refer back to quickly so as to be able to offer up concrete examples (good or bad) of that employee’s work. If your company is large enough to have an HR department with a compensation analysis team—the group that will examine salaries at the company and compare them to industry averages—that team will often be involved in any promotion or salary bonus/raise reward. That team will request examples that justify the raise.

We often talk about the importance of documentation of code, but “people documentation” is equally, if not more, important. Documentation is your friend, so get into the habit of taking notes. These notes also provide you an option to reflect back on your interactions with and observations of that employee during quiet times, such as plane flights, before or after meetings, or even walks from one office building to another. This helps you spot the patterns that emerge only when you look across the aggregate of somebody’s actions.

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