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Documentation: Efficacious or placebo?

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What do you do when you find a knife in your back?

That was the subject a couple of weeks ago (“Dealing with Ugly,” KJR, 10/22/2018), which also dealt with two other closely related situations, being scapegoated and thrown under the bus.

Several commenters pointed out that I hadn’t pointed out the importance of documenting everything about the situation.

They’re right. I didn’t, for two reasons. One was the column’s focus, which was on prevention. Documentation won’t help you prevent this sort of situation, for the simple reason that evidence and logic rarely help you in any situation.

Seriously — try to formulate a plausible scenario in which you explain to Someone Who Matters that the company’s CBO (Chief Backstabbing Officer) has turned his attention to you. So … you inform that Someone that it’s going on and you have documentation regarding the facts of the matter. Think she’ll actually read your documentation?

It won’t happen. More likely, the Someone Who Matters will conclude you’re just another whiner who needs to grow up and solve his own problems.

Or, you can complain to Human Resources. They’ll ask for a copy of your documentation, which they’ll helpfully add to your personnel file, where nobody will ever look at it again.

So far as prevention is concerned, about the only value documentation might have is if you’re on a project team and the project manager is preparing to make you the scapegoat for the project’s rapid deterioration. But even if you’re in this situation, documentation will be of limited value. More important is keeping your administrative manager informed, early and often, as to what’s really going on in the project.

After all, it’s your administrative manager who decides on whether to retain you as an employee, let alone what sorts of raises and bonuses you deserve.

To be clear, keeping your manager in the loop won’t prevent backstabbing or scapegoating. What it might prevent is your manager falling for it along with everyone else.

Conclusion: Documentation is close to useless for preventing backstabbing, under-the-bus throwing, or scapegoating.

Is it of more use after you’ve been victimized by the CBO or one of his protégés? You face the same gedankenexperiment (“thought experiment if you aren’t among the cognoscenti but are impressed by vocabulary-builders like gedankenexperiment and cognoscenti): Formulate a scenario where you have an opportunity to put your carefully crafted documentation to use.

Let’s see now … there’s your annual performance appraisal. Your manager downgrades your rating because she fell for the tales about you spread by the knife-wielder. You can provide all the documentation you want and you expect your manager to do what, exactly? Say, “Gee, I guess I was misinformed. It’s a good thing you have all this documentation to set me straight”?

Good luck with that.

Fortunately, the appraisal process includes an opportunity for you to challenge your manager’s assessment. By all means do so, so that your version of events is included in your personnel file, right alongside your manager’s comments. Guess how many people will have the time and interest to read what you had to say?

Answer: No people, but we might imagine that in twenty years or so your company decides to point its newly implemented Watson AI HR module at the past few decades’ worth of performance appraisal data. In our fantasy, it runs across your manager’s appraisal and your challenge to it, applies its neural-network heuristics, and concludes you were poorly treated.

Unfortunately for you, the Watson AI system truly is intelligent … intelligent enough to recognize that nobody in our solar system gives an infinitesimal damn. Applying this overriding insight it recalibrates its analytics window to only review the past five years of performance appraisal data, leaving you fifteen years too early to get any justice.

We’ve all seen enough courtroom dramas on television to imagine ourselves verbally skewering our nemeses as they quiver pathetically on the witness stand of some imagined tribunal.

It’s a satisfying daydream, but that’s all it is.

So document away, if you have time for it. But before you do, ask yourself whether it might make more sense to invest the same time strengthening one or more of your working relationships.

Because that’s the ounce of prevention that’s worth far more than documentation’s pound of placebo.

Comments (6)

  • Being from the great state of passive aggressive behavior (Minnesota) where you can enter a Masters program to become a CBO, I have better advice than documentation. Understand the political environment and get to know someone who has juice. Not the squeezed kind, the type that a highly respected person who gets thing does has. CBOs hate those people since they are productive and push right through the politics.

    Think the good and bad witch from the Wizard of Oz. Which reminds me, why didn’t the good witch help Dorothy and take her right to the Wizard?

    Anyway, if if you are an organization where the good people do not seem to exist and CBOs roam the halls like Zombies. Run. Freshen up the resume and find the next opportunity. Documentation, priests, four leaf clovers, and even Bob Lewis cannot save you.

  • I agree with what your article says so long as the topic is addressing immediate prevention, but in cases where there might be fraud going on that could involve legal implications, good documentation could prevent you from going to jail. Also, if your immediate boss is not the backstabber, your documentation could get the backstabber out of the picture.

  • Documentation has one other use: If the company jerk gets you fired, the documentation can be used in your claim for unemployment insurance, when the jerk lies about your “quitting”. It may take a couple of rounds of administrative hearings, but the documentation can make a difference to the judge.

    (Please use only my initials, sln.)

  • Efficicacioius! This word enabled me to recognize that my spell checker works is the Subject line as well as the body of emails.

  • As a former HR manager, I take some issue with the ‘translation’ of the lead in quote – we always wanted to know why, and there were times when having a formal exit interview provided useful insight.

    And re: documentation – the act of writing things down can be therapeutic and help one sort through what the real issues are. And in a case of anything discriminatory, having it, and managers/HR knowing you have it, can reduce the risk of being fired and/or improve your negotiation posture for a severance agreement.

    • You’re right – I should have stated that in cases that could lead to legal action of any kind, documentation is crucial.

      But as for exit interviews, I’ve been through them. The question I asked first time around: How was it that an executive team that had shown no interest in my opinions while I was an employee was now receptive to my insights.

      It turned out, HR didn’t even have a mechanism for packaging up what it learned in its exit interviews to pass along to the company’s executives.

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