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As part our monthly Instagram Live series #AskAnthros, Anthros Compliance Manager Bailey Anderson spoke with us about HR and employee documentation. We’ve edited her remarks for this blog.

First, why is documentation so important for employers?

Documentation is a key tool in managing employer risk. It’s an employer’s first line of defense when they face litigation, complaints or investigations.

Yet employers often are not prepared to fight these because of delayed, sloppy or nonexistent documentation.

Documentation is especially important for unemployment claims. If an employee is terminated for misconduct or leaves voluntarily and then files for unemployment, you will likely protest those claims. Being successful in these protests depends on the strength of your documentation, especially in cases of misconduct, where the burden of proof is the responsibility of the employer.

What documentation would you need to successfully protest the unemployment claim of an employee terminated for misconduct?

First, you’ll need to provide details about the rule or policy the employee violated, i.e. the policy in your employee handbook. You need show the individual was aware of the rule or policy through a signed handbook acknowledgement form.

Next you want to provide documents that show progressive discipline warnings were issued.

Finally, you want to show how the violation of this rule or policy affected your business and establish that you enforce your company policies uniformly.

What documentation do you need if the employee quits voluntarily and you’re protesting their unemployment claim?

In voluntary quit cases, you will want to have something in writing that shows the employee left voluntarily. This is why it’s so important to get the employee to sign a termination form when they leave voluntarily.

We always emphasize to our clients that good documentation starts with effective company policy. What does good company policy look like?

There are a few things that make up good company policy:

First, it needs to be consistent, meaning it is applied to all employees.

Second, it should be clear. Policies shouldn’t be ambiguous, or open to interpretation. They should be very clear about what is expected of the employee and how the employer will respond.

Policies should also be easy to understand. The more complicated your policy gets, the harder it is to enforce.

It is also important that employees are aware of the policy, and that you have taken steps to actively share it will all employees. We recommend making company policies available and easily accessible to employees at all times, through a company intranet or online employee portal, for example.

Any time you make a change, you need to notify employees immediately and require employees sign off that they’ve received the policy.

Finally, you need to make sure the policy is uniformly enforced. Your policies are useless if they are not applied uniformly to all employees, and this is where we see employers get into trouble. To give an example, corrective action needs to be applied to all employees consistently. If your handbook says employees get a written warning after three unexcused absences, you need to follow this for all employees. If you’re not enforcing policies uniformly, you’re opening yourself up to a discrimination suit.

One important thing that employers often forget to do is train managers in their policies. Don’t assume your managers have read and understand the handbook. Schedule a training to review it with your managers and give them a chance to ask questions.

An employee handbook is an organization’s most important tool for defining policies and communicating those to employees. Employers who want more information and best practices about employee handbooks should check out our blog or #AskAnthros episode about handbook.

Back to documentation. So, you’ve got your policies in place. You’ve got a great employee handbook, and it’s been distributed to all employees. Will you tell us about what good documentation look like?

First, it should always be in writing. Anytime you provide a warning, corrective action, or counseling about an employee issue, you need to document this in writing. Even if you’re giving a verbal warning, you need to document that this happened.

Do not delay! Document as soon as possible. You want to capture the most complete and accurate account and not risk forgetting key details. Employers often delay documentation until a certain behavior has been repeated many times. This is not a best practice.

Within 24 hours is a good rule of thumb. Documentation is much less effective if done days or weeks after the incident, and it will hold less weight if it ends up being used as part of an unemployment claim.

You also want to be specific. List specific events, incidents, projects. Never speculate on why something happened. Do not make assumptions about what an employee intended. Don’t include your own commentary. This is really important. State what happened, no more or no less.

Lastly, documentation should be signed and dated by the person issuing it.

Also, if you’re wondering how long to keep employee records, we recommend keeping them on-site in a secure location for at least 18 months after the employee’s termination date.

There’s a misconception that documentation is a huge burden and takes up a lot of time. Will you tell us why this isn’t the case?

The reality is that you will end up spending way more time on an issue later down the line, when it becomes a much larger problem. If you have an employee issue and the manager or supervisor doesn’t document this issue or take action, it usually ends up on the desk of an owner or executive. This is not a good outcome. Documentation prevents this from happening.

Documentation doesn’t have to be long, it doesn’t have to be multiple paragraph. Jotting down a few bullet points is fine.

Employers also need to remember that if there is an issue, if there’s a conduct or performance issue that you’ve identified and not taken action about, then it becomes a risk to the employer.

One thing employers don’t really think about when it comes to HR documentation is that this is a communication tool that allows 2-way communication. It’s part of a conversation between employer and employee. Will you explain that for us a bit more about how that works?

Exactly. This isn’t communication that goes one way. If an employee’s not meeting expectations, this is a problem for both the employer and the employee.

Having good documentation processes ensures that an employer clearly communicates expectations, and the employee clearly understands what actions should be taken.

Maybe the employee has ideas about how this problem can be solved. Documentation can actually be a tool for recording this. Plus, giving employees an opportunity to contribute their ideas is an important part of creating a positive, engaged workplace culture.

Another problem is that employers tend to think of documentation in terms of corrective action only, but that’s not the only purpose it serves. Employers should document positive feedback as well. Why should employers be doing this as well?

Employers should definitely record the positive. Documentation is not just a record of poor performance and conduct but an opportunity to record employees’ successes and achievement as well.

We really want employers to think about documentation in a different way. It’s more than just a necessary legal precaution. It’s also a tool for creating a workplace culture rooted in trust and transparency.

We all want to be fair employers. Developing clear policies and documentation processes really shows an honest commitment to fair employment practices, to creating a workplace free of harassment, discrimination and bullying.

Instead of thinking of documentation strictly as a disciplinary tool, it can be this broader tool to promote accountability and communication among team members. We can start to see documentation is an opportunity, not a burden.

Situations that call for corrective action or disciplinary action can be overwhelming for managers. Managers sometimes have no idea what to write down. If a manager does need to document corrective action and give a warning to an employee, what needs to be in there?

If you’re issuing a warning or disciplinary action, there are a few things you want to make sure to include.

First, you want to make sure you have a detailed summary of what happened. List the specific company policy that was violated. Don’t go into other things that are not related to the policy, or not related to work.

If this isn’t the first warning, refer to previous warnings or violations of policy and what disciplinary action was taken.

Next, describe the specific actions or changes you are expecting from the employee. If there is corrective action taken, be sure it complies with your policy and prior warnings. You should also mention what the next disciplinary action will be if employee does not make these changes.

We recommend using a corrective action form or a communication form for these incidents. Don’t forget to give employees the opportunity to share their experience and understanding of what happened. Your corrective action form can include section where employees can record their experience of the incident.

Finally, ask the employee to sign. If an employee refuses to sign a corrective action form, that’s okay.  You can record that it was shared with the employee and that the employee refused to sign

What are some best practices for handling corrective action?

It’s important to be professional and calm. If you’re giving a warning to an employee, it’s a good idea to have a witness. Grab another manager or someone from HR to be present while you’re having this meeting.

If there needs to be an investigation, note that this needs to be administered by authorized personnel, such as the owner, a manager, or your Human Resources department.

It’s also important that documentation and investigations be kept confidential. You want to keep information about these things only to the employee, the manager, and HR staff that need to know. You don’t want this to get out and become a topic of gossip in the workplace.

We understand this can be scary for employers. Business owners are skilled at running their business, not at handling performance and conduct issues. This is one reason why businesses choose to outsource their HR to get support and expertise. How does Anthros support clients with documentation and corrective action?

The Anthros team is always available to our clients to guide them through corrective action and documentation. At any time, a client can get on the phone and say, this happened, there’s an employee issue, what should I do? We’re there to talk clients through it. We can even help managers fill out corrective action forms.

If the situation requires an investigation, it’s often best to have that done by a third party. For our clients, Anthros is the third party that conducts these investigations. We take statements from the involved employees. We advise the employer about what action should be taken.

We also navigate the unemployment claims process on behalf of our clients. Plus, we can do training with you managers in documentation best practices and corrective action policies. We also help clients create their handbook, and in many cases, we make recommendations about what policies should be in there.

When it comes to documentation and handling HR issues, we definitely offer a lot of support. It’s helpful to have that team of experts on hand when you do have an incident. Our clients call us and we can guide them through it step by step.

To see previous episodes of #AskAnthros, visit @AnthrosInc on IGTV.

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