The Importance of Documentation in Human Resources

Documentation Will Serve You Well, Legally and Ethically

You need to create documentation about employee performance as close to the incident as possible so that the documentation is accurate.
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Documentation is the written and retained record of an employee's employment events. These records are made up of government and legally mandated elements, documents required by company policy and practice, documents suggested by best human resources practices, and formal and informal record keeping about employment events.

Documentation About an Employment Record

An employee's record of documentation is a written account of his or her actions, discussions, performance coaching incidents, witnessed policy violations, disciplinary actions, positive contributions, reward and recognition, investigations, failure to accomplish requirements and goals, performance evaluation, and more.

Think of employment documentation as your history of an employee's relationship with your organization—for good and for ill.

Maintaining these records allows the employer and employee to preserve a written history of the happenings and discussions that occurred around any specific event. Documentation of the employment relationship provides a written record that may be necessary to support such actions as employee promotion, employee pay raises, and disciplinary action—including employment termination.

Documentation about employees, when necessary, is generally both positive and negative. It is factual, not judgmental. It describes events as they occur, not based on the beholder's opinions and thoughts about the event. The documentation also describes the actions that were taken in notable instances such as providing formal employee recognition or taking disciplinary action.

Remember, you need to create documentation as close to when the incident occurs as possible so that records are timely, detailed, and accurate. 

In a legal proceeding, documentation about an employee's past performance is often critical to the outcome the employer experiences from the event. Putting forth a fair picture of the employee's performance without focusing purely on the negative happenings is the goal.

Types of Documentation

Policies, procedures, the employee handbook, and performance development plans are also forms of documentation that record expected employee behavior and workplace requirements to maintain an orderly, fair workplace in which employees know what is expected from them.

Records are also the written statements of the accused, the accuser, and witnesses to hostile workplace events that involve employee misconduct such as sexual harassment or another serious transgression.

This documentation also includes permanent records such as the signed employment application, written employment references, application materials such as resumes and cover letters, and background checks. Kept aside from the employee personnel file, other paperwork such as the I-9 form (that verifies the employee's eligibility to work in the U.S.) is also maintained, as are medical records, FMLA records, and so forth.

Documentation may also be informal as in a manager's record of his or her discussions with an employee over the course of a year. It is important that managers maintain this documentation on all of their reporting staff members. No employee should be singled out because of performance for documenting. This treating of one employee differently than the others could be construed as discrimination at a later date.

Documentation may be formal and retained in the employee's personnel file. Employees are expected to sign this documentation to acknowledge they have received a copy, and have reviewed the contents in their entirety. The employee's signature does not signify agreement with the statements in the documentation.

Use of Documentation

Documentation of critical incidents, whether positive or negative, is also recommended so that managers have a record of employee performance spanning a period of time.

Organizations can use the documentation they keep in other ways. These may include procedures, work instructions, and computer software instructions to name a few, but for purposes of the human resources function, these are the common uses of documentation. The next section outlines instructions about how to document appropriately.

Performance Documentation Samples

Documentation about an employee’s performance will allow you to discipline, terminate, or fairly promote, reward, and recognize employees. Without documentation, making a case for any of these actions is difficult, and potentially risky for the employer.

The employer must avoid any potential accusations about the discriminatory treatment of employees. All legalities aside, good employers want to create a work environment that is fair, consistent, and supportive of employee goals and career plans.

This environment is supported by the manager's professional documentation of employee performance—both laudatory behavior and actions in need of correction or improvement. How to document these was discussed earlier in detail. The following situations give you more examples of appropriate documentation.

Documenting Lateness and Absenteeism


Mark is usually late for work. Mark misses too much work.


April 1: Mark called in sick and missed eight hours of work.

April 4: Mark arrived at work at 10 a.m., two hours late from his scheduled start time.

April 6: Mark scheduled a doctor's appointment and then, stayed home to have a new furnace installed.

April 12: Mark called in sick and missed eight hours of work.

Documenting Performance


Mary is unreliable. She hardly ever does what she committed to do.


May 2: Mary promised the first draft of the product proposal would be available for review at today’s weekly meeting. Mary did not produce a draft document as expected. Said she had been too busy and the people whose help she needed hadn’t gotten back with her.

The manager responded: What help had you needed? Information? Who has not gotten back to you and what did you need from them?

Carl and Michael needed to update Mary about their progress.

What is making you so busy that you didn’t have time to follow through on your commitment? Makes too many commitments with limited hours to fulfill them.

What can I do to help you?

When will you make the draft document available for review? 

In Conclusion

These samples provide an overview of what effective documentation looks like versus documentation that is written incorrectly. Follow this advice to effectively and legally document policies, performance, and events in your workplace.

Please note that the information provided, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality. The site is read by a world-wide audience and ​employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country. Please seek legal assistance, or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct for your location. This information is for guidance, ideas, and assistance.