Sometimes you should document.

Last week I suggested that if you’re being backstabbed, scapegoated or otherwise hung out to dry, documentation won’t help you.

Several members of the KJR community pointed out that if you think you might ever file a formal complaint … if, for example, you might involve the EEOC or if things might end up on court for one reason or another … then good documentation is essential.

As long as we’re on the subject of your relationship with your employer going sideways, let’s take a few minutes to talk about your next exit interview.

Here’s what the exit interview’s point is supposed to be: Freed from concerns of reprisals, departing employees are supposedly more likely to provide honest information about their employment experience than those they’re leaving behind.

And so, exit interviews should help HR pinpoint both problem managers and more systemic issues, and in either case to recommend corrective courses of action.

Here’s what actually doesn’t happen, according to “Making Exit Interviews Count” (Everett Spain and Boris Groysberg, Harvard Business Review, April 2016):

“… many companies don’t even conduct these interviews. Some collect exit interview data but don’t analyze it. Some analyze it but don’t share it with the senior line leaders who can act on it. Only a few collect, analyze, and share the data and follow up with action.

Imagine an HR staff member — call her Mary Mencheslaus — charged with conducting exit interviews. Mary is interviewing Wendy Whyme, a five-year employee who tendered her resignation two weeks prior. Whyme explains why she resigned: Gary Gaslight, a top-performing sales rep who employs the unfortunate tactic of taking prospects to strip bars and requiring the whole sales team to come along. Whyme is the third departing employee in as many months to tell the same story.

Mencheslaus documents the interview, writes a summary for Gaslight’s personnel file, and meets with Gaslight’s manager, Fred Foghat, to explain the situation. Foghat explains the consequences of killing golden geese and suggests to Mencheslaus that dropping the whole matter would be best for all concerned.

Mencheslaus next meets with her manager, Sam Sansvertebrae, to inform him of the situation. Sansvertebrae explains that Gaslight, because he’s such a strong rainmaker, is untouchable, that there’s no point in pursuing the matter further, and that Mencheslaus should remove her remarks from Gaslight’s file and drop the issue immediately.

Mencheslaus, being a highly principled individual, refuses and escalates to the head of HR. Shortly thereafter she finds herself looking for her next employment opportunity.

Meanwhile, Foghat lets Gaslight know about his meeting with HR, suggesting he tone things down a bit until it all blows over. In response, Gaslight spreads the word among his personal network that Whyme is bad news and a troublemaker.

If you think the above tale of woe or something similar doesn’t play out, over and over again, throughout the halls of business organizations all over the map … this is just my opinion mind you … you aren’t being paid for your charming naiveté.

Who flubbed the situation, and how?

Whyme‘s mistake wasn’t trusting HR’s discretion. Mencheslaus didn’t mention any names in her documentation or her meeting with Sansvertebrae. Whyme’s mistake was thinking she had any upside for responding honestly and completely in her exit interview.

As a five-year employee she had to understand the company’s management culture well enough to know nobody would care. And she had to know that if anyone reprimanded Gaslight or otherwise called for him to change his stripes, that he would figure out she was a likely informant; and that he was vindictive enough and sufficiently well connected that she was putting her career at risk.

Did Mencheslaus make a mistake? You bet she did. She also had to understand the company’s and HR’s management culture, also Sansvertebrae’s management style. Whatever other actions she took, she should have consulted him before taking any other action. Then, if she decided to escalate in spite of its utterly predictable futility, she’d also have been smart enough to keep personal copies of her documentation regarding the entire sorry episode before doing so, just in case one of Gaslight’s victims decided to take the company to court.

Anyone else? Of course. I hope everyone in the KJR community is savvy enough to recognize that the CEO and board of directors are the source of every aspect of the company culture.

That includes the culture of plausible deniability that’s carefully designed to insulate everyone above Foghat and Sansvertebrae in the management hierarchy from the reality of How We Do Things Around Here.

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.