Getting managers to complete employee performance appraisals is one of the most nerve-wracking things human resource professionals have to do.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

An even bigger headache is getting managers to actually document performance and disciplinary discussions on an ongoing basis. Not surprising, documentation is often provided only if needed and often written weeks or months after the fact. The words and tone are ambiguous, vague, or biased. And rarely is the under-performing or disruptive employee put on notice of any performance or behavior issues until it’s too late.

Here are five of the most common employee performance documentation mistakes and how you can avoid them:

Document, Document, Document

The first mistake is obvious – failing to document at the time of an incident.  A corollary to this mistake is only documenting the negative experiences. Performance management is about mentoring and coaching employees to better outcomes and a more successful career journey.  Documentation should include the good, the bad, and the ugly when appropriate. Notes should be recorded as events happen – not months later – and whenever appropriate, a meeting scheduled with the employee sooner than later to discipline or recognize him or her.

Lack of Clear Goals

If you ask most managers and employees to describe what is expected of them, they will pull out the job descriptions. But very few job descriptions include specific goals and expectations. Most often job descriptions are a list of job responsibilities, which are difficult to measure. Without stated goals, it is almost possible for employees to know what is expected and how they will be evaluated.  Instead the manager measures his employees’ performance based on specific expectations and but doesn’t share them, preferring to keep his options open by relying on “the other duties as assigned” as his baseline for performance.  Whether recorded on the job description or separately, employees should have specific goals against which they are measured and evaluated.  The SMART model is an excellent, simple goal setting standard that will keep managers out of hot water.

No Surprises

No employee should ever be surprised when he or she is terminated for poor performance or a disciplinary reason.

Here is a common scenario: Joe, the manager, has put Bob on probation since the day he was hired, nearly three years ago. The problem is that Joe never told Bob. But last week, Joe finally had enough. He terminates Bob and reports his decision to HR.  The HR manager pulls out Bob’s file to find 3 years of performance reviews that look pretty good.

When the HR manager asks Joe why the file doesn’t reflect all the problems he is now reporting, the manager says, “Bob’s a nice guy with a lot of family problems. I thought I could work it out.”

Documentation must be direct and specific.  It shouldn’t rely on gut instinct but observation. If expectations are missed, they must be recorded and the employee notified immediately – not months later at the annual performance review.

Keep documentation simple.

Managers often write absolute expressions such as “always” and “never,” as in “Bob always missed his production goals.” In reality, Bob misses most of his goals but occasionally exceeded them. Attorneys and labor arbitrators love exaggerations and mistakes like this.

Choose your words carefully. Simply state the facts: “Over the past three months, you fell short of your goals by 8 percent, 2 percent, and 11 percent respectively.” Focus on the performance not the person. Addressing performance issues is tough enough without setting up the employee to say, “but you never liked me.”  Whether you like the employee or not shouldn’t be relevant. Don’t open up the door.

No Follow-up

Good, legally defensible documentation requires follow-up discussions.

Take this example: Joe sits down with Bob and gives him a step-by-step improvement plan. Unfortunately, Bob continues to struggle. But manager Joe avoids employee performance meetings like the plague. Not only does he fail to ­­­document Bob’s performance, but he decides to wait until the required mid-year review, mandated by HR.  Good documentation should include both recent and past performance issues and successes.

Proper follow-up requires regularly scheduled coaching session until performance is improved or a decision to termination is reached. Bob – or any employee for that matter- needs to know that he could be terminated if he did not meet the stated expectations. And that should be included in the record too.

The bottom line: At the end of the day, your documentation must be accurate, state the facts, include the employee’s explanation and show all the efforts the manager made to help the employee succeed.