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Documenting employee performance.

Supervisors who follow a simple set of guidelines can develop good habits and avoid problems in assembling files on staff performance. The author a member of MLO's Editorial Advisory Board, is president of Answers & Insights, Inc., a management consulting firm in East Brunswick, N.J

"I won't put up with your absenteeism, carelessness, and lack of responsibility anymore. You're fired!"

Even if termination of employment is justified, a supervisor would make a serious mistake to do it this precipitously. An employer firing someone on grounds of incompetence may be sued for wrongful dismissal. Defense against such a suit often requires evidence that the employee was indeed incompetent and let go for just cause.

Dismissal without notice is widely regarded today as a serious step generally not justified by one instance of incompetence or misbehavior. Increasing attention is being paid to progressive discipline.

The employee should be told there is a specific problem and given a chance to explain. If the excuse is not satisfactory, the shortcoming or infraction should be recorded in the employee's file. At that time, he or she should be told the consequences of future misbehavior. This process of warnings and recording of shortcomings or infractions is called documentation.

One key use of documentation is to show the reasoning that led to a decision to discipline or dismiss an employee. It is just as important, however, to document good performance. A written record serves as a reminder during a performance review, as justification for promotion or a raise, or as rebuttal to equal employment opportunity complaints involving work performance.

Positive and negative feedback can help a supervisor motivate an employee to improve. Consider these examples:

Betty is an outstanding technologist. At her last performance review, she was delighted when her supervisor recognized her accomplishments by citing specific incidents in which she showed initiative and excelled on the job.

On the other hand, Alice is a longtime employee who has become uninterested in her job, and her work habits attest to a deteriorating attitude. When her supervisor pointed out specific incidents, Alice was forced to acknowledge the problem. No further action was necessary because she realized she either had to change her behavior or face serious consequences.

When recording an incident, a supervisor should do more than give an opinion or write statements such as "Alice has not been doing a good job lately." Instead, describe the behavioral evidence that shows the employee is not meeting performance standards.

These guidelines can help a supervisor prepare effective documentation:

*Be accurate. Record objective facts, not opinions, concerning actual performance. What job-related performance did you directly observe? Under what circumstances did it occur? What were the consequences of this behavior? For example, the following incident might be recorded:

JoAnne was disrespectful to Dr. Lyons when he complained about a Stat that he felt was taking too long to complete. When he was rude in confronting her, she became angry. She told him that he's "always bugging the laboratory staff" and that she will take her time processing his Stats if he continues to do so.

*If it's not behavioral, don't document it. Factual statements about behavior are indisputable, while interpretive statements may be refuted. Record only the behavior you have seen directly, not hearsay comments. A supervisor in one laboratory failed to do this when a technologist complained that a co-worker was uncooperative. The supervisor documented the statement as fact without having personally observed a lack of cooperation.

* Do not rely on memory. Write down the details as things happen. Otherwise, essential facts may be omitted, and the employee may disagree with the documentation. For example, it greatly upset David to read the following entry in his documentation file: "Although the new instrument has been installed for three months, David has not become proficient at using it."

This entry was accurate according to the supervisor's memory. It overlooked, however, a great deal of time spent by David on a special project for the laboratory director, which left him with much less opportunity than fellow workers to use the instrument.

*Be consistent. A technologist whose documentation file was crammed with critical observations learned that a co-worker's file had virtually no entries. She concluded that her supervisor was out to get her.

Maintain documentation on all employees in a work group. Stick to the same basic format and level of detail for each one, and record both positive and negative behavior. This way, you cannot be accused of inventing a case against an employee.

Record documentation on a simple form with headings for the date, the observed behavior, whether the behavior was positive or negative, and the job-related consequences of the behavior. Limit entries on the form to behaviors that have such consequences. You may feel, for example, that an employee dresses flamboyantly, but you cannot show that this affects work performance in any way.

Let's look at three entries in a laboratory clerk's file and determine whether each is appropriate:

"The 95 per cent standard of all correspondence with no typos was met last month." This belongs in the file. It is an objective, factual record of specific behavior.

"I've heard that he wastes time making personal phone calls." This is hearsay, giving someone else's opinion. Delete it.

"During the year he was frequently disrespectful." Do not trust memory for incidents over the span of a year. This statement, based on a subjective judgment, is poor documentation.

How much documentation is enough? It's useful to assume someone at the same authority level is going to look at the documentation. That person should be able to reach the same conclusion you did or at least be able to say, "I can see how you concluded that."

Documentation, of course, can be overdone. Use discretion in deciding what to record and how much time to devote to the process. If something unusual occurs, write it down as soon as possible, lest you forget. In entering observations of common occurrences, a weekly or monthly summary of the employee's behavior should suffice.

Documentation can on occasion create problems. When employees realize a file is being maintained, they may feel threatened. Assurances that both positive and negative comments are recorded may not lessen their concern. For this reason, it is important to regularly review the contents of the file with employees. They should not have to speculate about your recorded comments.

If the comments are unfavorable, an employee may feel you don't like him or her personally; or if you have had a good relationship, the employee may feel it has turned sour. Once again, assurances may not solve the problem. It helps, however, to emphasize that the contents of the documentation file are confidential, and that its primary purpose is to help you guide the employee's growth and development.

Unfortunately, it may not be possible to keep the file confidential. Your own supervisor or the human resources manager may want access to it. A problem may then occur if either reads more into the record than you intended. The burden is on you to make your language explicit.

Problems with documentation files will not occur if they are maintained carefully. They are beneficial for performance reviews, salary and promotion recommendations, and the rare instances when you decide it is necessary to terminate an employee.
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Author:Roseman, Ed
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Oct 1, 1988
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