How to Document Employee Performance

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In the world of Human Resources, documentation about an employee’s performance will make or break your ability to discipline, terminate, or fairly promote, reward and recognize employees. Documentation is essential for managers and HR staff for these reasons.

Why Document?

  • Documentation provides evidence that performance issues were discussed with the employee in a timely and concise fashion.
  • Documentation offers a history of the employee’s improvement or failure to improve performance over time. It is chronological and a precise description of the employee’s actions, the manager’s actions, and events as they occur.
  • Documentation provides evidence that supports management decisions to take unfavorable action such as discipline or termination with an employee.
  • Documentation offers proof that an employee deserves an available promotion or opportunity.
  • Documentation provides evidence to justify salary increases, decreases, or why an employee received no raise.

What to Document

Managers need to document employee performance, both positive contributions and performance failures. They need to document exactly what the employee did and said and what the manager did and said in response during the meeting or conversation.

You need to document any agreements made during the conversation, goals set, improvements required and expected, and the timeline for improvement. Documentation should also contain commitments that the manager makes to assist the employee.

How to Document

Documentation should be written during the meeting with the employee or immediately following the conversation.

At no time should you miss writing down the conversation on the day it occurred. Waiting until later affects the quality of the documentation because it is based on memory.

One of the worst mistakes managers make is to believe that they can reconstruct an employee counseling history as needed. No HR person who has any experience of decent documentation is fooled.

Managers who reconstruct from memory bring unnecessary and unacceptable risk to their company.

You need your documentation to appear professional, neat, and organized. Write documentation as if you are talking about the history to a third party. You never know who may read your documentation one day so make sure that it reflects your professionalism. (Yes, back of a cocktail napkin, envelope or sticky note doesn't qualify.)

Your documentation should go to an employee’s new manager if the employee obtains a new job – or you do - in your organization. For your memory and to inform the employee’s new manager, you need to put the employee’s name and title, your name and title, and the full date (xx-xx-xxxx) on each document.

Write documentation that is factual, fair, legal, objective, complete, and consistent.  Avoid opinions (Mike is sloppy.  Alice is lazy. Tom was lying to me.), name calling or editorializing (John is a jerk.  Mark has an attitude problem.), and labeling (Mary is irresponsible.  George is not a team player.).

Avoid also trying to interpret the employee’s behavior. (Marsha must not like this assignment. Paula appears to be in over her head.) You will want to minimize your use of descriptive words such as adjectives and adverbs (slowly, sloppily, unhappy, moody, rude).

State the employee's specific behavior and actions, not your opinion or interpretation of it.

In documentation what is needed is an accurate record of the conversation. Stick with the facts and write down just what you said and what the employee said. Make sure that your documentation is unambiguous and that it gets the facts straight. (In any potential legal situation, errors make all of the documentation suspect.)

Finally, document any agreements, commitments, timelines, improvements needed, check in points, and other details that might slip from memory.

Know the documentation policy of your HR department. That will tell you what documentation needs placement in the employee's personnel file. This will definitely include any documentation of disciplinary actions.

Where to Store Employee Documentation

Since documentation about employees is confidential and private to the employee, you need to take care that any documentation remains confidential to the manager, HR, and potentially, the employee's next manager.

Thus, putting documentation on a shared computer drive is not recommended.

Handwritten documentation is best kept in locked storage.

If you follow these guidelines, when HR tells you to document, document, document or they can't help you, you'll have your bases covered.


Susan Heathfield makes every effort to offer accurate, common-sense, ethical Human Resources management, employer, and workplace advice both on this website, and linked to from this website, but she is not an attorney, and the content on the site, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality, and is not to be construed as legal advice.

The site has a world-wide audience and employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country, so the site cannot be definitive on all of them for your workplace. When in doubt, always seek legal counsel or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct. The information on this site is for guidance, ideas, and assistance only.