Documenting an Investigation: Seven Cardinal Rules

The importance of documented evidence cannot be stated strongly enough. The most important time a supervisor involved in a disciplinary/corrective action can spend is the time devoted to recording and documenting what has taken place. Notes taken or made during the process will enable supervisors and managers to recall the incidents that precipitated the discipline at a later date.

  1. Act immediately.

    This is especially important when dealing with situations where the behavior of the employee is in question. Make your investigation a top priority. Interview parties involved in workplace situations and witnesses as soon after an incident as possible. The information they have to offer:

    • will be more fresh in their minds; will be less likely to have been contaminated or confused by conversations with other employees; and
    • will prevent them from changing their story at a later time.
  2. Gather facts from the parties and/or witnesses directly involved.

    Third party evidence usually isn't worth the time it takes to collect it. On Perry Mason, this kind of information is called hearsay. This is the legal term. In most workplace settings, it is usually referred to as gossip or the grapevine. It occurs when Jill tells Joe who tells Marie who tells the supervisor what happened. Tracing this kind of information back to its source is generally an exercise in futility. If you hear these kinds of rumors and can identify the original source, go directly to it. Avoid the traps that await those who try to retrace the maze of what was said to whom and by whom.

  3. Avoid getting or using opinions.

    Opinions are frequently unreliable, regardless of whether they come from other members of the management team or from the employee's peers. They are filtered through the individual's own personal experiences and not the situations at hand.

  4. Back up subjective information with documentation, if at all possible.

    This is especially critical when making observations about work performance. Keep copies of examples of poor performance. Take notes or keep logs of work assigned and completed. Maintain a record from which specific incidents can be cited.

  5. Get the best evidence possible.

    Hard evidence is always better than a description of it. While a picture speaks a thousand words, the samples of errors are more eloquent. In an instance of employee violence where a weapon was used, the actual weapon is better than a description of it or even a photograph.

  6. Prepare individual documents recapping the information provided by each of the parties and/or witnesses.

    Ask each individual to review the information s/he provided for additions or corrections, then have the document signed or initialed by the person who gave the information. Date all information. University policy requires that supervisors discipline within ten days of an act or event or within ten days of knowledge of the act or event. Supervisors are encouraged to act as quickly as possible without jeopardizing the position of the university or subjecting the employee to undue delays. If additional time is needed, inform the employee that the situation is under investigation and give a date by which action, if any, will be taken.

  7. Preserve documentation.

    Be sure to keep all documentation used to support disciplinary action in a file that is readily accessible to be used in support of a grievance or other action that the employee may file as a result of the discipline issued. This file should be preserved for approximately three years from the date of the incident.