November 23, 2021
Written by Mallory Auth with content from Kira La Forgia.
HR Documentation 101 may sound like the most boring thing ever… And that may be true, but in online business it is one of the most important steps you need to take in order to preserve the structure of your business and keep things running smoothly. In working in small business HR for (almost) a decade, I have seen the disastrous impact that have come from a lack of documentation, but I have have also seen the positive impact that proper documentation can have on successfully running a business. I want to pass along my knowledge so you can prevent issues before they actually happen!
In HR, we use documentation for everything from conversations with interviewees to daily interactions with team members. When you get into the habit of documenting all things notable regarding experiences of your employees within your company, you are prepared to confidently take action to keep your team safe and productive.
The purpose of documenting notable employee behaviors, positive and negative, is to establish a paper trail of interactions. It may be difficult for newer managers to identify what exactly should be written down, but you must remember that our memories are not as reliable as we think. When in doubt, write it out! You may have the best image of an employee in your mind, but when you look back at notes, you may find some not-so-great recurring issues that need to be addressed.
Documentation allows you to say neutral and compliant, especially when making decisions regarding promotions, raises, or even replacing employees that aren’t meeting standards.
The Basics of Documentation
- Make it as easy on yourself as possible to keep up with documentation by utilizing the systems you are already comfortable with (for me, that’s Google Workspace or MS Outlook/Office).
- Make it accessible for the people that are also going to be interacting with you (for example, a Director of Operations). This will reduce your workload since you don’t have to receive and then manually enter documentation from others.
Why is Documentation SO Important?
Documentation helps to establish precedents to protect you and your company against illegitimate accusations of discrimination or wrongful termination. By having every occurrence or incidence written down, you have evidence that you acted in a just manner when firing an employee or evidence that you treat all your team members the same. When it comes to the safety of your company, establishing precedents through documentation is a small step you need to take to form a protective barrier for your business.
Credible Company Culture
One of the worst things you can do for your company, especially when you have a small team, is having someone on your team who is affecting the culture through negativity or misalignment with the mission. We want to be able to lean on our team for all work related instances, and hopefully in most cases we can, but people are unpredictable.
When everyone in your company everyone knows that incidences of discomfort and conflict are being documented in a neutral way, your employees will feel much safer to function within the company ecosystem. When it does come time to terminate an employee that is affecting the overall experience of your team, you can directly handle the situation, provide specific constructive feedback, and prevent a disgruntled team member from “poisoning the well” of your company and the positive culture you have worked so hard to create.
Every employee wants to feel protected, your team should be on board with documentation as it creates a safe working environment.
Documentation in Practice
Here are some TOTALLY hypothetical situations that DEFINITELY did not happen but help to further portray the importance of documentation.
Unemployment Insurance Claims
Say you have an employee in a leadership who seems to be distracted and taking advantage of his position. His pregnant wife is calling and harassing his coworkers while he is working, attempting to get information about his whereabouts, asking who he is spending time with at work, causing lots of internal drama and gossip. It turns out this employee was fraternizing with another team member who was also married. Basically a lot of inappropriate workplace drama is going down. These situations can be super difficult to manage as a leader because you work closely with the employee, you are only hearing gossip and nothing credible, and you don’t want to put any other team member on blast.
There are times when as a manager, you do have to wait and see how things turn out. Finding the balance of when to interject into a situation versus waiting too long and allowing chaos to happen is one thing that can be hard to navigate (and a perfect scenario to bring to our Set To Scale meetings for guidance!)
The situation escalates when he leaves work without supervisor permission, creating a situation . When he was hired, he signed a No Tolerance Policy that outlines the standards, so after this incident he receives a written warning. He goes on to be insubordinate to his manager, which also goes against the company’s Code of Conduct that he signed when he was hired. Within a week he is terminated with proper cause of causing disruption in the workplace, going against the No Tolerance Policy, and violating the Code of Conduct, which was all documented by emails, witnesses, the company calendar, and a Disciplinary Action Form. He tries to claim unemployment insurance due to hostile working conditions. Shortly after a document in sent in outlining what happened, who was involved, the policies he signed and how he violated them, he was denied unemployment benefits which saved the company money.
Say another employee resigns to go back to school. They try and claim unemployment insurance two weeks after resigning stating they were fired without cause. To fight the claim, all you have to do is send in the employee’s resignation letter and a Change in Relationship Form. No matter if an employee is terminated or resigns, it is important to have them sign a Change in Relationship Form on their last day. The form states that everyone is on the same page regarding why the employee is leaving the company, and it is an easy way to fight false unemployment insurance claims.
The negative actions or personal issues of one employee should only be the business of management, other employees should not be made aware of these type of situations. It is a good idea to make clear in your employee handbook that you have an open door policy to discuss any issues, but they will not be shared to other team members. Say, theoretically, you have an employee who is not showing up to work or client appointments, and clients start to complain. You have a discussion with this employee backed up with documentation that shows what dates and times they should have been at work or a client meeting but weren’t. Make sure to always start with compassion like “we were worried about you when you did not show up and we couldn’t reach you”.
They respond by name dropping another employee, saying that “this person is always absent but no one ever says anything to them. You are discriminating against me because I am a person of color”. You write down what the individual says and the reasonings they give in the summary of the meeting. You offer further explanation by saying that the employee they mentioned has their own path and is confidential with only one absence, while you have missed seven days of work. You are now equipped to fight a discrimination claim because of the fair policies set in place to document the actions of all employees. Although it can be uncomfortable, you are able to prevent issues regarding discrimination. Make sure you are holding yourself to the standards in which you are running your company from the inside out to prevent any biases or discrimination.
We never want to be in a position to be discriminatory against anyone, but that doesn’t give us the right to disregard people’s feelings and perceptions. Unconscious bias and discrimination are an ever present struggle for managers. We have to be open to considering other’s perspectives while also maintaining neutrality.
Basic Employee Conduct
Let’s talk about something that is often so simple it is overlooked in basic management.
HR Documentation for online businesses will look a little different than the following situation. However, it teaches us a good lesson in the value of time and integrity.
So- you have an employee who shows up 30 minutes late to an off-site event where they are scheduled to be work independently. After the event, they report their time as if they were working for the whole event and did not arrive late. The person in charge of the event reported to your team that the employee arrived 30 minutes late and they were disappointed in the employee’s service. With client satisfaction being the ultimate goal, we had to walk the line between accountability and throwing our teammate under the bus.
The employee was already paid for their time, so you have to conduct an investigation into time theft. We definitely don’t want to jump to any conclusions – maybe there was some miscommunication. Having a simple conversation can go a long way. However, in this case, when the employee was asked to confirm their hours, they reiterated that they were there for the entire event. The person in charge of the event ends up sending in security footage showing the employee arrived 30 minutes late, so no further investigation was necessary. Since employees are required to sign an acknowledgment of the employee handbook, and time theft is outlined in the handbook, the employee is terminated as the No Tolerance Policy includes dishonesty about timed work, and lying to supervisors. Every step was documented through emails, a disciplinary action form, and that a manager and director were both present in the meeting. Final pay regulations were followed and all communication with the disgruntled employee were moved to email with an emphasis that they were not allowed back in the company building.
Attendance issues are especially important for remote businesses as a few minutes here and they can easily be overlooked. If an employee is also reporting to many managers, they may not take note of an employee arriving a few minutes late to a Zoom if they believe it is a one time occurrence. In our company, punctuality and attendance is a policy that is weighted very heavily for this exact reason – we want to stop punctuality from being an ongoing issue. Our managers are required to report any tardiness via a company calendar. Say you have an employee who’s attendance gradually gets worse over time, with proper documentation of every instance of tardiness it makes bringing the issue up to the employee neutral and backed up with evidence. There is no need to use emotionally charged words like “always” or “never” since you have specific dates and times. When this type of behavior does not get addressed, it affects the company culture and could instill negative behaviors in other employees, as well. The worst case scenario would be other employees claiming discrimination.
- When you are documenting issues, try to use unbiased language. Try not to use emotionally driven words or generalities like “always” “never” “all the time” “a million times” etc.
- As the CEO or HR Lead, you will have employees reporting issues to you that sometimes involve one another, and you need to be ready to boil it down to facts and not take sides.
- Even though you aren’t taking sides, you can still be empathetic to each of their individual’s experience.
- I know it may seem stressful and overwhelming to learn to document what feels like every little thing, and learning as you go is totally fine! We hope you can see how proper company policies and documentation can save not only the culture of your company, but also protect from false claims made by current or former employees.
The foundation of your people operations and HR strategy touches every single part of your business. From finance, to marketing, your workday structure, and your brand – keeping a straightforward expectation of your team is the key. If some of these policies were scary (No Tolance Policy! Employee Handbook! Ah!) Our team can help you create the workplace culture and policies that entrepreneurs dream of, with the structure that stands the test of time.