I was reminded recently why documentation is a crucial part of staying safe and sane in any workplace.
When I think of a worker documenting things, I think of instances of discrimination based on age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or religious affiliation. You know, all the Equal Employment Opportunity things. This is usually done after things get super rough and someone needs to start building a case for why they should be able to keep their job or why someone else needs to lose theirs.
But documentation in general can be a hugely valuable thing besides setting yourself up for a future lawsuit. Documentation can be good to have a record for moments of uncertainly about decision making, who said what about what thing, credibility, and gently helping someone follow the progression of events they may not remember.
What is documentation?
Documentation is more than just note taking. When we think of “notes” from a meeting, these are usually action items and details about how to complete something. This is more about who said what, responses to conversation, and who else was in the room.
It also isn’t just about noteworthy things that break the course of action or are disruptive to the way the workplace functions in the way harassment or discrimination can be.
Documentation should also include the random one-off meetings where you might just shoot the shit about pop culture. It should include any noteworthy interactions between other co-workers you witness. It should include conversations via phone and screenshots of text messages.
How on earth can I fit all of this into my day?
This may sound like “Document all the time always always always to the point that my job is mostly documentation.”
Think of documentation as a normal part of your workday. It’s like following up on a meeting where you review your notes, maybe input them into another system like Evernote. This is an informal process of documentation. This is how if shit goes sideways, you can have a system that shows how you kept track of things.
Formal documentation is when you send something on to your manager to have them track it for you, also. It’s a way of flagging a larger system about an issue, not just keeping track of things in the event a flag should be required at a later point.
Why is it important?
Documentation is good in all types of workplaces, but particularly in highly litigious ones (where lawsuits are more common) or where the rules seem particularly lax. The former likely already has systems in place to require documentation. Think of hospitals where medical staff spend a ton of time charting.
The latter is particularly important as these workplaces can give the impression that “everything is ok here, no need for rules.” But these systems are far more likely to unevenly apply rules, or make them up in a response to a perceived threat. They are less likely to complete formal Human Resources investigation processes and more likely to have knee jerk reactions to single sides of problems.
In workplaces with few rules or a lack of clarity around rules, your documentation process is less likely to be used, but is vital nonetheless if only so you can create safety for yourself. This is about safety beyond the security of your job and more about mental security. When problems arise in low-structure systems, gaslighting is a common occurrence. Documentation helps you remember what you saw, what you said, and what happened so you don’t start the dangerous process of doubting your own reality.
And, if things are hunky-dory, it can also be helpful for noting your own patterns for change. So if you constantly see two co-workers fighting about the same thing, maybe you can take note so you can approach a problem with either of these two differently. Or if you always get a no from your boss, but your co-worker gets a yes, a documentation process can help you understand what they might be doing differently to bring your boss into your corner.
Ok. How do I get started?
Documentation should be in a system that is independent from your workplace. Meaning it should not be in a file only accessible from your office computer or requiring a login based on your work email. Ideally it is in a place that you can access both at and away from work. I’m particularly fond of Word documents in Dropbox, Evernote notebooks, or a good old-fashioned paper and pen.
Once you have found your favorite way to start documentation, do it often, and let people know that you do it. This has a couple of effects. First, in the event something radical happens, it would be well-known that you observe and write stuff down and you could provide good insight for a problem, either for yourself or someone else. Second…people might be less likely to mess with you if they know you keep track of shit like a Southern woman tracks grudges. (I know how diligent this is because I am a Southern woman who tracks grudges.)
So, start documenting your work life. Do it in a way that feels like it’s a natural part of your work flow. It’s something your employer should want from you and if you get pushback about it, you know, document it. It may be noteworthy in your lawsuit that your managers didn’t want you tracking what was happening in the office. That’s what happened at Enron and look how that turned out.