Documentation: Your Best Protection
No matter how long you’ve been in dentistry, employee issues are a constant, and so is the need to deal with them promptly and consistently. But there’s a crucial step that all too often gets skipped or skimped along the way: documentation.
It may sound like a no-brainer, but as an HR professional I’ve heard a lot of reasons from employers and managers as to why an employee’s personnel file is empty or contains only vague, outdated notes. Here are some of the most popular:
“I’m too busy to do paperwork.”
“I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.”
“It only makes him mad, not better.”
“It didn’t seem necessary at the time.”
The sad truth of the matter is, none of these excuses will help you when it comes time to defend against an employee claim–and in today’s lawsuit-happy world, if you haven’t been sued yet, there is a three in five chance you will one day.
So, whether you’re a doctor, owner, office manager, or team lead, if you’re in charge of employees, the quality of your documentation matters. That’s why I’m always preaching, “Document, Document, Document!”
If You Needed Your Documentation Today, How Well Would it Serve You?
Imagine a judge is hearing evidence in a wrongful termination claim that’s just been brought against your practice. And although you fired your last front desk person, Fred, because of his constant attendance issues, he says it’s because he just turned 50. It’s your turn to give evidence. Which sounds like a better story to you, “a” or “b”?
(a) “I told Fred he had come in late too often and I was fed up.”
(b) “On May 14, Fred was late for the fourth time that month, arriving at 8:35 instead of 8 am. I gave him a Final Written Warning.”
No question, right? It’s not just paperwork when you have to turn an employee’s personnel file over to a lawyer. Documentation is your only way to prove that you let an employee go for a valid, legal reason –and not for an illegal one–so you need to avoid vague wording and include specific details instead.
The quality of your documentation goes to the heart of your practice’s professional credibility. The person reading any particular file should walk away knowing who, what, where, when, how, and, most importantly, the why behind any major management decision–especially terminations.
Good notes are always:
• Dated (as soon after the incident as possible)
• Specific, and,
Anything less than that and your documentation becomes Exhibit A for the plaintiff.
Your Documentation Can Win the Lawsuit…or Cost You Thousands
Remember, when documenting any employee issue, you want to provide the best possible evidence that your management decisions were legal, fair, and appropriate, and that you gave the employee a reasonable chance at self-correction. In other words, no termination should be a surprise or a mystery–even in an at-will state! The more your documentation shows your efforts to work with the employee, the more justified your decision will look to a judge or jury.
As always, whenever you’re in doubt about a particular situation, especially if there is any protected class status involved, consult with an expert. If termination starts to seem likely, you need to be sure your recordkeeping has been thorough and that your office policies are legally compliant, consistently applied, and fully up-to-date so they support your decision.