Common Mistakes in Documentation and Recordkeeping

Rod Stephens
September 1, 2008 — 2,241 views  
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Your company's record keeping and document retention practices will often be the difference between winning and losing a lawsuit. Over the years I have seen a variety of areas where employers and human resources professionals get themselves in trouble. One common theme has been a failure to have reliable and accurate documentation.

In this Blog post and, and for the next several weeks, we will examine how documentation or the failure to document can create problems for employers and human resources professionals.


Email has become an acceptable form of business communication. Due to the manner with which we treat email, email often becomes a source of evidence used by an employee in a suit against their employer. With that being said, here are my email rules.

1. Treat your emails with the formality you would if drafting a letter.

Formality begins with the salutation. Avoid salutations like "Hi Joe" or "Joe" or no salutation at all. My preference is to have the salutation show respect, such as "Dear Joe" or "Dear Mr. Smith." Formality includes with the way in which the email is closed. Consider closing the email with the same way you would close a business letter.

Your emails should reflect the seriousness of the topic being discussed. Do not assume that the facts will be understood by a third party reading the email two or three years later. Be clear, concise, and always convey the impression that you are concerned about the issues raised.  

Finally, if you would not put it in a letter don't put it in an email . If you would include it in a letter consider putting it in your email. 

2. Avoid email abbreviations and emoticons.

Your email will be evidence in a lawsuit brought against your company. Individuals reading your email at a later date may not understand the use or purpose of email abbreviations such as LOL or BTW. Remember your email, and any documentation, is designed to confirm facts and should create the perception that you take the matter seriously. The reader should be able to understand your email without having to resort to a glossary of email abbreviations.

I have never been able to understand the use of emoticons, such as smiley faces and frowns, in a business email. While you may think that emoticons somehow convey that you care and understand, the reality is that they create the impression that you do not take the matter seriously. Save the cute stuff for the private emails you send from home to friends and family.

3. Remember we weren't there and there is no "you had to be there defense."

Unfortunately, when email is written it is more often than not the product of an ongoing conversation between individuals that may span days or even weeks. As a result, these communications tend to take on a more relaxed tone that do not reflect the spirit in which the email was sent. As a result, months or years later, when the email is read by someone that was not a party to a conversation, sarcastic comments appear neutral and a humorous observations appear rude and insensitive. Email communications, are one of those "you had to been there" dialogues. Unfortunately, the judge, jury and opposing counsel weren't there and are taking the statements made in the email literally. 

4. Don't feel the pressure to answer right away.

One of the myths of a world with instant messaging, Blackberrys, and email is that an immediate response is required. That is not always true. More often than not, problems can be avoided if you wait before responding to an email. Instead of responding immediately, draft a response in your word processing program, print it, and read it. Once you are satisfied that your response is complete and reasoned, paste the response into the email and send it. A considered response is always better than a knee jerk reaction. If you feel the need to give an immediate response, consider sending an email acknowledging receipt of the email and promising a response the following business day. 

5. Keep a copy of your email.

Yes, I know it is cumbersome to cc the file and to tell Outlook to file the email. Do it. You don't want to rely on it being in your Sent file folder. 

6. Don't be afraid to attach documents.

If the email concerns a company policy, attach a copy of the policy to your email and require the recipient to acknowledge receipt. By doing this, you have provided a copy of the policy and you have a record that the employee received the policy. Hopefully, this will thwart any effort to raise the "but I didn't know" defense.

7. Keep it strictly business.

Do not use your email to comment on company policies or other employees. Comments, such as "that's just how he is," may be viewed at a later date as a lack of concern about issues that were raised by an employee. Similarly, statements such as "I understand what you are going through" can be interpreted as being insincere or an acknowledgment that a larger problem exists. 

Keep in mind, your job is not to critique company policy but to insure the policies are enforced. Telling an individual that you feel a policy is unfair or expressing frustration with the manner in which matters are being handled can and will be used against you.

8. Avoid promises you can't keep.

When promises are made in an email, they are viewed as being etched in granite. While you may think that you will be able to get back to the person tomorrow you don't know what surprises the next day may hold. If you make a promise to get back or accomplish a task, factor in possible interruptions. If you have made a promise that you cannot meet, don't ignore the promise. Send an email advising the person that something has come up and give a realistic time that you will get back.



Rod Stephens


Rod brings a unique perspective to the table in that he represents management and employees. We feel this allows us to offer a broader perspective to our clients in that we understand cutting edge employment law issues and how they are perceived by management and employees. Employment law matters can require immediate response in times of crisis. On those occasions, you can take comfort in the knowledge that we are prepared to provide the type of response that takes advantage of years of experience.