The supervisor walked into his manager’s office and handed over a personnel action form. “This just needs your signature. We need to fire this employee. He doesn’t show up on time, does a lousy job and has a horrible attitude.”

“When are you hoping to fire him?”


“What documentation do you have?”

“I haven’t had time to write him up but I’ve told him a dozen times he needs to kick into gear.”

“Without documentation, we won’t fire him. Come back when you’ve put a file together.”

The frustrated supervisor walks away angry that he has to put up with an employee he wants gone. Unfortunately, this situation isn’t unique. Many supervisors put off documenting employee problems until too late and while Alaska is an employment-at-will state, employers unwilling to risk legal problems refuse to fire employees without adequate documentation.

So why do supervisors fail to document, even when an employee’s performance worsens? Documentation takes time, and supervisors don’t have much, particularly when they’re picking up the workload left by underperforming employees as well as doing their own job.  Supervisors also often put off documenting in the hopes things will improve and because they don’t want to deal with employees who’ll argue there’s nothing wrong with their performance.

If you’re a time-crunched supervisor, here’s how to make documenting easier.

Verbal to written

If you’re trying to get an employee to improve, you’re having regular discussions. Document them. Your documentary notes don’t have to be long, just clear and factual.

If a problem worsens and you need to write a reprimand, refer back to prior oral counseling incidents even if you haven’t documented them. By doing so, you show that you followed constructive and progressive discipline, as in, “I talked with this employee about this two weeks ago and told him that the next time….”

Just the facts

Effective documentation is factual, accurate and objective. Ineffective documentation presents conclusions and opinions as if they are facts, leading to arguments from employees who don’t agree with how you’ve interpreted their actions. If you do have to win agreement from a senior manager, HR professional, regulatory body or jury that an employee deserved discipline or termination, a factual recounting can succeed while a generic “this employee just doesn’t get it,” leads to speculation that it’s the supervisor who doesn’t get it.

As an example, when a manager asked for my help firing a problem employee that afternoon and showed me his documentation, I found zero concrete details. The supervisor told me the employee was always late, had a bad attitude and cussed a lot.  “I can work with that,” I said, “give me specifics.”

Here’s one of the factual notes I wrote: “Tish arrived at the 45-minute staff meeting forty minutes late. She took a chair from the back row and moved it back two feet, sat in it, crossed her legs and folded her arms across her chest. When I asked her for her view on the decision the team had just reached concerning parking, she asked, ‘How the f— should I know?’”

If you write the facts, they’ll have the ring of truth to the employee and anyone later reading your documentation will draw the conclusion you have.

No secrets

If you want to do a good job as supervisor, talk with your employee each time before you document problems and document positives about your employees as well. Ideally, you’ll talk with your employees daily and not have to write many notes. Your end game isn’t a file, it’s an employee who knows what you want and succeeds. If, however, you supervise an employee who doesn’t respond well to corrective feedback, let your company’s HR officer know. That way, you’ll have help terminating an employee who deserves it.

Finally, if you’ve truly arrived at a “last day” and lack documentation, hold a “meeting of the minds” discussion and offer your employee a waiver releasing your organization from liability in exchange for extra severance pay.  No employee enjoys working for a supervisor who’s given up on him and the severance and waiver can put both parties out of their misery.

© 2019, Lynne Curry

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Solutions” and “Beating the Workplace Bully” and Curry is now a Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting at Avitus Group. Send your questions to her at or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10.


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