To Document or Not To Document

To Document Or Not To Document Retail Performance Issues

I am a bit of a legal news nerd and recently, I read a very interesting article on the SHRM website about an offensive employee who is suing his company for a termination. In a nutshell, here is the case: The employee was rude, sarcastic, passive agressive, and just a really terrible communicator. BUT…the company never truly documented any of the issues. A supervisor claims to have spoken to this employee about becoming more “approachable” but there was never any written counseling to support this being a job-threatening performance issue. So then, one day the employee requests FMLA accommodation to care for his son who has a mental illness. The company responds, upon him turning the paperwork in, with “we pay for your insurance so we expect you to be at work” – UGH!!! Anyhoo…the employee was terminated three days following the final submission of his FMLA paperwork for “unprofessional and inappropriate communications with coworkers”. In his review he received an overall score of 3.5 out of 5 and two areas received a 4 out of 5. WHAT?!?!?

Right now this case sitting in court to be decided upon but it surfaces a very interesting and (unfortunately) common occurrence in the mismanagement and poor leadership of people. The above issue takes place in an industry outside retail but I have seen this time & time again.

I was very lucky to, early in my retail career, work at Disneyland as a manager in a complex of stores. The hourly cast members were union, the management was not. We had to follow the contractual obligations outlined for coaching, counseling, and performance management of the hourly team members. This experience taught me a lot about documentation, how to hold people accountable for performance, and how to be timely in my delivery of counseling. That has never been a challenge for me. I approach these conversations very directly, respectfully, and from a perspective of “how can I help you be better?”. My leadership philosophy has always been, “No Surprises”. The employees will never hear anything from me that comes as a surprise to them. They know exactly where they stand at any given moment and can clearly articulate their strengths and the areas they are working on. When I used to do performance reviews (before transitioning to the “Stay Interview” program) if I had to give an employee a “below expectation” overall score…they knew it was coming and they knew what area(s) were the cause of the challenge and were working on improving that area. No surprises.

That is never what I have found when I have stepped into a challenging role to repair. I have found that people definitely a “below expectation” in performance or attitude were told they were a “meets” (sometimes even better) and it was a tough road to hoe to repair the behaviors or performance issues that were so damaging. The best thing you can do for your team is to always be honest with them. It will either improve their performance to a true “meets” or it will help you manage them out of the business. Nothing is gained by not coaching to performance, behavior, or communication challenges. They will not fix themselves regardless of how frequently we hope they will. Your employees may dislike you (intently) initially or for a period of time but, ultimately, appreciate your investment of time and coaching.

There are a number of ways to document dialogues and conversations in retail. You can have the conversation and then email a summary (in a positive light) to the employee and copy HR on it. You can document in on paper. You can have your employee write up their own PIP and email it to you and HR. All of these things will ensure that you have reviewed the challenges and put in place remedies to assist the employee with improving performance and it will cover the employer in the event there is a termination issue. But not addressing performance or behavior issues at all could very well lead to what the plaintiff in the story above is taking his former employer to task for. And again – there is nothing to be gained by sweeping it under the proverbial rug and then when it comes time for the company to take action having it lead to an animus situation for both parties.

As we become more technical in retail, that should serve a benefit to documenting performance. One additional word before I close this post. Documentation should go both ways. As quickly as we are documenting performance issues that are negative, we should be documenting positive behaviors and results for a balanced and consistent initiative for our employees. You will be surprised at how much easier the coaching conversations become when you also consistently recognize the good.

Added October 31, 2015

I came across this employment law blog post from Wolters Kluwer. It is very helpful and covers some of the more technical legal aspects of documentation in the workplace, specific to performance management.

Added November 28th, 2015

According to Allison West, Esq., SPHR Employment Practices here are the steps you need to Create Bulletproof Documentation:

1. Document Expectations
2. Document the Conduct (positive or negative)
3. Document the Employee’s Explanation
4. Document the Specific Action Plan/Goals*
5. Document the Timing
6. Document the Follow-Up
7. Document the Consequences

*I, typcially, have employees who have earned negative performance documentation sign off and date that specific company policy and include in the Action Plan/Goals a review of the “Employee Handbook” by the follow-up date


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

View all posts by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *