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HR documentation: a step-by-step guide


At first, HR documentation can feel like a series of tedious administrative tasks you have to do as part of running a business. However, thorough HR documentation is incredibly important to your business.

Here’s why:

  • It’s the story of your company’s interaction with each employee, from the start to end of employment.
  • It’s your assurance that you’re in compliance with federal, state and local employment laws and regulations.
  • It’s your line of defense in the event that an employee sues your company for discrimination, wrongful termination or another issue.

For business owners and managers, there’s so much sensitive employee data that must be managed and protected, and diverse employee issues that must be dealt with daily.

Not having comprehensive employee records, as well as a secure place where this information is centralized, can get you in trouble quickly.

This is your guide to achieve comprehensive, accurate HR documentation. It covers:

  • What you need to document
  • What information should be included in your documentation
  • How you collect this information

The goal of HR documentation

To adapt an adage to HR purposes: if you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen.

When creating written evidence to support your decisions and policies, your goal is to be credible, fair and consistent. It’s wise to operate under the assumption that a third party may, at some point, review your records.

Confidentiality is also an important part of record keeping. Managers and HR professionals have a responsibility to manage the information – shared in writing or verbally – regarding an employee’s performance or personal status.

This information must be held in confidence and only divulged to people within your company who have a need to know.

Now let’s review the most prominent areas in which good HR documentation is critical.

Onboarding paperwork

Whenever new employees join an organization, they complete an onboarding process.

Part of this process involves new employees receiving a stack of paperwork to fill out and providing personal information. This includes the exchange of extremely sensitive information such as their:

  • Driver’s license
  • Passport
  • Social Security number
  • Bank account information
  • Health or medical information
  • Personal contact information, such as addresses and phone numbers

Not handling new-hire paperwork properly is one of the biggest mistakes that employers can make. The release of this information to unauthorized audiences could cause a new employee harm and put them at risk of identity theft. It can also land your company in legal trouble.

Holding these documents requires a different, more robust level of security. You need to have protocols in place for the collection, storage and maintenance of sensitive employee information by designated company representatives in an environment that is:

  • Secure
  • Password protected

The process should be self contained and designed to keep information private.

Furthermore, paperwork containing sensitive data should only be retained for the specific purpose for which it’s needed.

During this time, it’s a good idea to also ask new hires to sign a detailed job description listing their title and responsibilities to avoid any ambiguities later on.

Performance communications

This type of communication encompasses two main categories:

  1. Performance development
  2. Performance correction

Performance development

In this scenario, an employee is doing their job well. You approve of the quality of their work. However, to expand a skill set, assume more responsibilities or score a promotion, the employee may need additional training.

For these two scenarios, the process differs slightly.

How to document training requirements for an employee assuming new responsibilities in the same role:

  • Write down the qualifications this employee has as of the current date.
    • Explain why this person is ready to take on more responsibility within their current role.
    • Note that they have the bandwidth and desire for growth.
  • Ask the employee to sign a job description clearly outlining the new expectations in the role.
  • Describe the necessary training. Include the training plan, the duration of training and what the expected competency level is at the end of the training. Have the employee acknowledge the plan by signing this document.
  • Schedule check-in sessions during the training period to ensure the employee is engaged and to provide any necessary support and resources.
  • Include the dates that training began and ended.
  • Add this information to the personnel file.

For employees being trained to assume a new position, follow the same steps – with one exception:

The employee shouldn’t sign an updated job description until they’ve begun in their new role.

Performance correction

In this scenario, an employee isn’t performing well or is unable to complete job responsibilities satisfactorily.

You will need to have to have a difficult conversation with this employee focused on performance improvement. Here’s how to document poor performance:

  • Explain to the employee what is wrong with their work or behavior, while avoiding personal attacks.
  • Be specific about your expectations and how the employee’s output or behavior has fallen below expectations.
  • If appropriate, offer one-on-one coaching or devise a performance-improvement plan.
    • Describe what the coaching or improvement plan entails and the duration.
    • Define what improvement looks like.
    • Have the employee acknowledge the conversation by signing the document.
  • Establish a date by which the improvement must occur and what your expectations will be going forward.
  • Make sure the employee understands that, without improvement, action, up to and including termination, is a possibility. If continued poor performance could lead to termination, the employee needs to know that. Terminations should never come as a shock to the employee.
  • Write down what was discussed and the date the conversation occurred for each conversation.
  • Add this information to the personnel file.

Attendance issues

You might encounter a situation when an employee is great at their job – when they’re present.

However, excessive tardiness, absences or breaks throughout the work day can overshadow the output of even the most talented worker. It can also lower morale and cause interpersonal problems within teams when colleagues feel like they’re constantly covering for someone who’s never there.

Here’s how to document poor attendance at work:

  • Explain to the employee what they are doing wrong.
  • Be specific.
    • Note the date for each occurrence. 
    • If possible, cite how tardy the employee was or the number and duration of breaks, for example.
  • Each time an attendance issue happens, ask for the employee’s reasons for it – and include it in your notes.
    • Ask the employee if there’s something that you can assist them with. The goal is not to delve into an employee’s personal issues, but to determine what, if anything, may be done to solve the problem.
      • Remember, if a health issue is the cause of the attendance problem, you’re responsible for engaging the employee in the interactive process to determine whether modifying the job may help. 
    • Or is the attendance issue simply the employee having trouble getting out of bed when their alarm clock goes off in the morning?
    • Does the employee provide contradictory excuses? You want to understand why the employee seems to offer conflicting reasons and be able to address the discrepancies when necessary.
  • Write down what was discussed and the date the conversation happened for each occurrence.
  • Ask the employee to sign the document acknowledging that the conversation took place.
    • It’s important to understand that the employee is not agreeing with the content. If they refuse to sign it, document the refusal.
  • Add this information to the personnel file.

Documenting attendance problems is critical because it provides a record of the information you were provided at the time of the absence, tardy or other attendance occurrence. Even if the employee later says they weren’t present because of a different reason, you can show documentation of the original communication you received from them.

It’s also important to be lenient with an employee if something happened that was out of their control, such as a freeway being shut down during their commute. In these circumstances, document why you approved the reason for the absence or tardy.

Realize, though, that if you excuse one absence for this reason, you should excuse all employees who were absent for this reason. If there’s a delay due to traffic, it’s possible more than one of your employees who travel the same route at the same time will be affected. All should be provided the excuse.

This demonstrates that your organization is fair and unbiased in the application of its policies, including the exceptions that may be provided.

Compliance with office policies

An employee could engage in any number of activities that don’t comply with your organizational policies:

In more extreme cases, employee behavior could result in termination on the spot. As we’ve established above, document what happened and add it to the personnel file.

Otherwise, documenting a lack of compliance with organizational policies should be approached in the following manner:

  • Explain to the employee why they’re out of compliance. Be specific.
    • Cite the policy that’s been violated and where it can be found in your employee handbook.
    • Note the date of each occurrence.
  • Help the employee understand how they can improve their behavior in order to comply with the policy.
  • Write down what was discussed and the date the conversation happened for each occurrence.
  • Ask the employee to sign the document acknowledging that the conversation took place.
    • It’s important to note that they’re not indicating agreement with the content.
    • If they refuse to sign it, note the refusal on the document.
  • Tell the employee that continuing this behavior could lead to termination, if applicable.
  • Add this information to the personnel file.

Medical documentation

Sick leave

When an employee calls in sick you may be tempted to ask for a doctor’s note to justify their time out of the office. Not so fast.

Many states, counties and cities have paid leave laws. Not all of these laws are restricted to sick time, either. Some are specific to “safe time,” which is applicable to victims of domestic violence or members of their family, and some are simply paid time off, without restriction as to the reason for leave.

While most of these laws provide for some type of documentation under certain circumstances, not all of them do. Before you ask employees to provide a doctor’s note, first determine whether your state, city, county or other location has paid leave laws and what those laws require.

  • If your state, city, county or other location has a paid leave law, your employees may be allowed to use time accrued under the law to be out of the office without any documentation for a certain period of time. Document the number of days the employee was absent and note that the employee used time under the applicable law.
  • If your state, city, county, or other location doesn’t have a paid leave law, you might be able to require documentation in the form of a doctor’s note, which you should then add to the personnel file.

Keep in mind that doctors’ notes may be subjective or lack key information. For example, a doctor’s note may not state whether the employee is able to return to work.

This lack of information can make it challenging to treat employees equally. Do you ask the employee to go back to their doctor and get a new note containing all the requested information? What information is even required? In what circumstance do you let an omission slide?

Tread carefully in these cases. An employee’s medical information is private, protected information.

If all you need is a note stating the employee was seen by the health care provider, you may not want to ask for additional information.

If there’s a question about whether the employee can perform the functions of the job, you may want to ask for additional information about that only, but not about anything related to the medical condition for which the employee was absent.

Being cautious in how you address these occasions may mean the difference between managing good documentation and employment practices, and unintentionally stumbling into an ADA claim.

Medical leave

If an employee needs to take a leave of absence because of pregnancy, a personal illness or the illness of a close family member, they may request medical leave.

All states are subject to the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). However, you need to determine whether your state, city, county or other location has any additional requirements that run concurrently or consecutively with FMLA.

Generally, you need to document:

  • That a medical condition exists (but not what the medical condition is), the necessary time off or schedule accommodations, and how long the leave is expected to last.
    • A health care provider submits this information. The condition should not be named, and the request for documentation should specifically state that no diagnosis or prognosis is requested.
  • The date that the employee can return to work, or the expected duration of the leave.
    • A health care provider submits the release to return to work. Preferably, this is the same person who authorized the leave.
  • Whether the required leave is continuous or intermittent, and the parameters around such.

Add this information to the personnel record.

Accommodation of a disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities so they are able to perform essential job functions. (Note: Employees don’t have to be able to perform every facet of the job, only the essential functions.)

So what is an essential job function? To answer this question, you need to understand what is required to perform the job.  

As part of the ADA interactive process, here’s what you need to document in the personnel file:

  • Include the employee’s request for the accommodation or explain how you became aware of the need for an accommodation.
    • Employees don’t have to formally request an accommodation.
    • Recap the conversation and the date it happened, being as specific as possible.
      • When possible, provide quotes of statements made. Avoid paraphrasing comments as doing so may result in incorrectly documented information.
  • Provide your response.
    • What are you able to accommodate?
      • If you’re unable to provide a requested modification, document why.
    • What was agreed upon between you and the employee?
  • Establish a follow-up date. This is an opportunity to assess whether anything needs to change, and to confirm whether the accommodation is effective or still necessary.

Renewal of documents

Admittedly, this is not a common scenario. It’s usually only relevant to situations in which an employee is a legal alien resident or green card holder.

If you have an electronic system, which holds all personnel files, it should alert you when any employee documents – notably the Form I-9 – are about to expire.  

If you have a paper system, you must keep up with expiration dates of these documents and plan accordingly.

Once you’ve notified the employee, the ensuing process will be largely similar to the protocols and process for handling onboarding paperwork.

Summing it all up

As a business owner or manager, there’s a lot you have to keep up with. Though it does take time to gather and note information as it arises, maintaining good HR documentation will make your life easier in the long run – and deliver crucial peace of mind.

For more information about how to improve your company’s HR efforts, download our free e-book: 7 HR mistakes and how to avoid them.