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by Mike Smith | March 10, 2009


To accurately evaluate employees and defend those evaluations if necessary, managers need to develop written evidence of behavior/performance. Managers cannot fairly and objectively evaluate employees unless they keep some records of their performance. Evaluations usually summarize a year's performance, so the chance of accurately remembering all of a year's accomplishments for every employee is very small. Therefore, the more complete and accurate the documentation, the easier it will be to evaluate employees' performance.

Ideally, feedback should be given immediately after the behavior occurs. But when feedback must be delayed, documentation will provide a useful, and often necessary, reminder of what occurred. Also, if an evaluation is questioned, documentation will be needed to support it. This is especially important when charges of discrimination are investigated. Memory alone will not be acceptable.

Both positive and negative feedback can help motivate an employee to improve performance. When an employee hears that the work he or she is doing is appreciated, chances are that the individual will work harder to achieve even better results. In the case of a poor performer, the employee may be unaware of the problem. Accurate and unbiased documentation can help the manager explain precisely what an employee is doing wrong, giving the person an opportunity to change. By pointing out performance in specific incidents, a manager cannot be accused of arbitrariness, prejudice or of simply placing blame. ~


The following guidelines will be useful in preparing documentation:

  1. Be accurate.
  2. Document facts and behavior, not opinions or interpretations of the employee's behavior.
  3. Record direct observations of actions and results. Include hearsay only in special circumstances.
  4. Do not rely on memory. Write things down soon after they happen.
  5. Do not include documentation that is not behavioral.
  6. Be consistent.

It is not enough to give opinions or write such statements as, "Harry did a poor job on his last assignment." Instead, the documentation should explain why you conclude Harry did a poor job and what he could have done to be successful.

Documentation should describe an employee's behavior, not his or her attitude. Behavior is what the person does, not your evaluation of it. For example, a manager might write that a employee is "lazy, introverted, and requires approval for anything he might accomplish." This does not constitute behavioral documentation. It would be better to write, "George doesn't meet established deadlines; he doesn't make the phone calls necessary to get the job done unless he's prompted more than once; and he stops working until I personally review his work and tell him he's correct."~

By documenting the employee's actions (or lack of action), a third party reading the documentation should be able to agree with the manager's conclusions. However, the reader will have reached these conclusions by reading descriptions of the employee's behavior, not the manager's opinion of the employee.

The sixth guideline, "Be consistent," means that it is important to document the performance of every employee, not just those who are performing unsatisfactorily. It's worth repeating that both positive and negative performance should be documented. This way, a manager cannot be accused of inventing a case against an employee - something managers must be particularly cautious of, especially when "protected class" employees are involved. Protected class employees are those who are covered by one or more of the Equal Opportunity Laws, e.g., racial minorities, women in non-traditional jobs, religious minorities, those with real or perceived handicaps, employees over 40 years of age, etc.

Putting the Guidelines Into Practice

When to document?
The sooner, the better.

How to document?
There is no one best way to document. Approaches range from documenting in detail every instance of relevant job behavior to producing a single short paragraph summarizing a period of time.

Managers usually find that certain job situations lend themselves to ongoing documentation of single instances, while others are better documented on a summary basis. Generally, summaries are most appropriate for behavior that occurs often and is intermingled with other work activities. Summaries should be based on informal notes made as work behavior occurs.

The best way to develop and keep documentation is the one that fits a manager's style and preferences. Some managers keep notebooks or journals. Some make weekly summaries. Some make notes as convenient and review them periodically. Any way of collecting and consolidating information that works is acceptable.

~What to document?
Any job related employee performance could be documented. However, the "critical 20%" and "no credit" concepts should be considered. Only significant behavior which affects the outputs of the job, the work of others, or may later have an effect needs to be documented.

Documenting performance is not an easy task. The most difficult aspect is describing behavior in specific terms. This is also the most critical aspect of documentation. It requires careful observation and an equally careful description of what the employee did.

Effective documentation should state as specifically as possible what the employee did. It should also describe the circumstances surrounding the employee's behavior. The extent and significance of the behavior as compared to expected job performance should be clear. Extent is a "how much" measure. It specifies results achieved versus expectations. Significance is a "so what" measure and could include:

  • Value - profit, cost reductions, services provided.
  • Difficulty - not how hard it was for the employee to do the task but how hard it is to find someone capable of this achievement.
  • Supervision required - is performance largely a result of help from the manager?
  • Circumstances which helped or hindered achievement.

How much documentation is enough?
There is no simple answer. But a reasonable standard might be enough documentation that a knowledgeable reader would understand and agree with the manager's evaluation.

Mike Smith, SPHR, is the Director of Human Resources for Apartment Search, the largest Rental Relocation company in the U.S. He has 30 years of experience in Human Resources and Training working in thetelecommunications, engineering and service industries. He has 33 previous publications and writes as a hobby. He can be reached at


Filed Under: Workplace Issues