In today’s world, the importance of documenting reasons for HR actions is well accepted. While the concept of at will employment is still valid, employers are confronted with numerous state and federal discrimination laws which focus on how protected employees are treated compared to other employees. From an HR perspective, an employer wants to show that action taken was fair and consistent with written policies or practices. Such conduct is essential in defending claims.
Today’s technology and the advent of email as the main way of communication present a significant challenge. So far, there is no technology that records our thoughts during the course of the day and archives them for later retrieval. A belief held in the morning may change by the afternoon as more information is acquired. Often, we are more than thankful that no one has access to our thoughts.
Enter email. Email gives an employee to respond immediately; click on reply; type; and send. Thoughts can be sent almost instantly…and that is the problem. An email is a document for legal purposes. A reply creates another document; a reply to a reply creates another. Now you have electronic paper trail waiting to be printed out. The concern HR has is magnified by “reply to all.” Now an email instantly goes to others. From a discovery perspective, an attorney will want to find out who all the addresses are; what their role is; etc.
Email provides a temptation to reply first, then to think. In an HR setting, this sequence can be disastrous. Documents relating to termination and discipline are normally painstakingly prepared and reviewed for accuracy. The most carefully planned action can be ruined by emails. So, is it realistic to assume that supervisors would stop using emails? Not likely; companies should consider the following:
HR should train supervisors on the impact the content emails may have on defending discipline or discharge.
Before responding in an email to an issue that has the potential to lead to further HR action, a supervisor should be told to wait a period of time to think the matter through and to formulate an appropriate reply. The response should be a separate email. The process of formatting gives the supervisor additional time to think.
Discourage HR matters requiring supervisory input from being handled via email. If a supervisor wants to prepare and to send a memo via email, that should be allowed.
Email is the closest thing to conveying one’s thoughts in real time. The ease of sending comes at the expense of thinking, really thinking. The absence of thinking which can be documented can undermine the most carefully thought out HR action. Before a supervisor hits reply, HR will hopefully have given him or her something to think about.