Who Are We Talking About? The Necessity of Identifying Employees in Employment Performance Documentation

Poorly Performing Employee Performance Documentation

I cringed at the employee performance documents my client, an employer, had claimed would win the case—two recently discovered memos supposedly demonstrating that the employee’s termination was not discriminatory. The typed memos stated:

  • "Talked to her 5/8, 6/2, 9/1 and others re: multiple performance issues."
  • "Met with her again regarding the same issues. JT told me he’d had the same conversations."

We needed to show that the former employee, Rose, had been laid off for poor performance and not her age or race. She claimed she’d never been told of performance issues. I, however, was not thrilled with these documents, especially after asking the client:

  • "Who wrote these?" She didn’t know. They were found in a file in a desk occupied by one of Rose’s former managers.
  • "Why did she think they applied to Rose?" Her response: Who else could they be referring to?
  • "Who is JT? Is that person still employed?" Maybe Jane Thatcher, but she died. Or possibly Joanne Taylor, who moved. Maybe John Titus, or Jason Thorn, all of whom had worked in Rose’s department.

Here, instead of being helpful, employee performance documentation vital to an employer’s defense against an employee’s claim is practically useless because it is incomprehensible. If only they had been properly drafted, these documents could have won the case for the employer!

Proper Employee Performance Documentation

When you document employee behavior or performance, you are writing for a future reader who does not know the players. Nevertheless, that future individual should have no questions about the events in the document, including knowing who wrote it and who it is about.

Here is some guidance for how to get employee performance documentation right:

  • Sign the write up or employee performance report with your own full name and post title. Remember that a future reader may not know who you are, let alone who other players are. Too often internal reports are unsigned, or signed with initials only. This can be especially troubling if the report is typewritten so that there is no handwriting to use as an authorship clue. Past authors have often left the company at the time of a future lawsuit.
  • Identify the employee the performance report is about. "I’ve spoken with her repeatedly and still her performance does not improve." "She was late again on Monday." While the author may presume that future readers will understand that a report in Samantha’s file was written about Samantha, that report may be separated from the file in the course of a lawsuit or otherwise. Employee performance documents should stand on their own and be understandable without reference to the file in which they were stored or otherwise.
  • Identify the other employees in the report by full name and job titles. Referring to colleagues and co-workers by initials or nicknames may be understood at the time, but become incomprehensible in the passing years. Don’t write, "BJ told me that Robert turned in the report not only late, but incomplete." State that, "Bruce Jay Sanford (BJ), our project manager, told me that…"
  • Do not abbreviate employee job titles unless generally understood, and even then be cautious. Everyone knows that CFO means Chief Financial Officer, right? Or does it mean "Central Files Officer"? Or "Chicago Facility Operator"? Or "Company Flight Officer"? It could mean anything particular to your business. Always define an abbreviation (especially a job title) the first time it is used in a memo or employee report.
  • Do not use "company slang" in employee performance reports without explanation. Your copies of sales receipts may be called "pinks," from by-gone multi-layer invoices, despite the fact that they are no longer pink. Similarly, the action to log them in a customer’s account may be called "Josephing," after a long-gone, long-term employee who performed that function. However, writing an employee up for "failing to Joseph the pinks" will be incredibly confusing to anyone (perhaps even a future company manager not clued into the slang) who later reads that report.

Train your managers to identify the employee they are writing about when documenting employee performance so that reports and memos become assets to the company and not liabilities down the road.

First published on Human Resources IQ.