Maintaining a system of organized, accurate and consistent documentation in the workplace is both necessary and beneficial. Making documentation a priority, especially when it comes to the company’s human resources (HR) department, can help mitigate disputes, offer resources when they are needed and answer important questions about the company. In this article, we discuss why documentation is important and ways you might consider improving your documentation process.
What is documentation?
Documentation refers to a set of records that professionals or companies keep to provide evidence or information that can be used to inform decisions. In the workplace, documentation is retained records of employment and company actions and events as required by legal mandates and company policy.
The best HR practices involve maintaining both formal and informal records about employment events. This can include items such as:
- Disciplinary actions
- Performance evaluations
- Policy violations
Maintaining extensive records allows the HR department to preserve a written history of events. Documentation can guide managerial staff on employee promotions, disciplinary actions, pay raises and terminations. Documentation should always be factual, supporting insights without relying on the opinions of others.
Why is documentation important?
While there are many reasons maintaining a consistent, organized system for documentation can help you and your organization to be successful, here are three main categories to consider:
1. It demonstrates professionalism
Documentation shows both employees and customers that you are committed to safeguarding critical information and are dedicated to providing stakeholders with factual information as needed. The practice of maintaining accurate documentation alone provides an accessible, manageable framework for addressing issues that benefits everyone.
2. It provides helpful guidance for performance
Documenting your processes ensures consistency, efficiency and standardization. It allows everyone following them to perform at their best and be clear about your expectations. Taking the time to document each of your procedures in a step-by-step format will save time and money in the long run. This documentation should also include the company’s mission and vision, roles and responsibilities for every position, and any other expectations of people who join your company.
Once you outline what's important for the business and how to achieve goals, your overall group effort will be more direct and focused. As a result, your employees can reach goals sooner and with more ease.
3. The business can be more profitable
Documenting information and processes saves employees time by offering answers to questions in an accessible way. Employees can spend more time working than getting caught up in solving problems for themselves or their coworkers. When businesses document procedures, they can run more efficiently.
Formal vs. informal documentation
While records of employment should be formal, it is appropriate for other documentation to be informal. For example, a manager might keep a casual record of discussions she's had with employees throughout the year to address during one-on-one check-ins with them about their goals, projects or level of morale.
Informal documentation can even consist of notes or letters saved in an employee's personnel file. If an employee writes down a suggestion and gives it to management, they can file it away for future reference. Email and online interoffice communications can also serve as informal documentation when the need arises.
By contrast, formal documentation adheres to certain standards and conventions as determined by the company and official HR procedures. The differences inherent in the two types help illustrate why full documentation is so important.
How to properly maintain employee documentation
Maintaining employee personnel files is one of HR's most important responsibilities. While your company's requirements might vary, a strong employee personnel file should include, but is not limited to, the employee’s:
- Job application
- Resume and cover letter
- Employment and education verification
- Position job description
- Emergency contact information
- Job offer letter, employment contract or rejection letter
- Signed employee handbook acknowledgment form
- Relocation documents and agreements
- Employee orientation checklist
- Disciplinary action reports
- Suggestions and company responses
- Requests for training
- Coworker complaints
- Training expense reports
If an employee is terminated or leaves the company for another reason, HR should continue documentation with the employee's:
Documentation examples beyond HR
Documentation isn't just for employee records and management practices. It also can include items such as tech specifications, requirements, business logic and company manuals. Here are a few industry-specific documentation examples:
1. Software development
Software development is one industry where documentation is important. Whether you're talking about a small team or a large corporation, many people are often involved in software development projects. Therefore, proper technical documentation ensures tasks are completed in a quality way.
Project documentation in software development can:
- Define the project
- Describe how the product should look
- Set coding standards
- Outline style guides and design patterns
- Formulate testing standards
- Define the subject of testing
- Document test results
- Provide instructions for product installation, usage and maintenance
Documentation must be comprehensive in an industry like software development because any errors create gaps between those having access to the information. For example, if stakeholders don't fully grasp the product, they may have different expectations for it than what the engineers are trying to deliver. Not only does documentation clearly outline relevant information, but it also prevents mishaps and misunderstandings.
2. Computer system management
System documentation refers to a solution that serves as a reference for future software and hardware update or maintenance efforts. In other words, it describes the capabilities and requirements of software and informs readers about the software's functionality. System documentation is more technical than other forms of documentation because it includes aspects like:
- Testing documentation
- Source code documentation
- API documentation
- Software architecture documentation
- Solution instructions for advanced users
User documentation within the realm of system documentation refers to information a non-IT user can more readily digest. Types of user documentation include user manuals, training manuals, installation guides and release notes.
Performing research and writing up findings requires you to build and support an argument. Documenting your studies and giving credit to those whose ideas you’ve built upon is crucial. Reasons for documenting your research might include:
- Providing credit or attribution to the original creator or author
- Making the sources you used in your research accessible
- Enabling your readers to follow up on the research
- Enabling others to verify the completeness and accuracy of your research
- Communicating transparency, integrity and trust to avoid plagiarism
Part of being a professional researcher is keeping written, audio and visual documentation about your research. This includes recording their hypotheses, findings, questions and conclusions. Scientists must also collect data to analyze it—a form of documentation. Additionally, scientists may want to replicate an experiment to see if the test results vary based on a certain variable. To repeat the experiment precisely as before, they need documentation from the previous experiment or original scientist.
Those who perform scientific research need an accurate set of instructions to test hypotheses, repeat experiments, produce results and publish their findings. Without proper documentation in research, we wouldn't have the advanced technology, medications and agricultural methods we enjoy today.
Related: 7 Methods for Taking Organized Notes
Consequences of improper documentation
Many industries require thorough documentation performed in a specific way. If organizations fail to maintain organized records, some of the consequences may include:
- Ongoing audits
- Improper billing
- Inefficiencies for employee growth
- Lost revenue
- Compromised safety
Documentation is used in all organizations to record a variety of information. No matter your career path, it's important to understand the role documentation plays in the workforce and how you can benefit from keeping organized records for your own career.