The Seven-Day Rule of Employee Documentation

Steven Cesare, Ph.D.

A business executive from California called me the other day to talk about an urgent need to terminate an employee immediately. Like, “right now.” Apparently, the employee had a lengthy history of making mistakes on the job and finally, her supervisor decided it was time to fire her.

With that context in mind, I shifted the focus of inquiry into the standard sequence (e.g., Does the company have EPLI coverage? Did the employee sign the At-will Agreement in the employee handbook? Is there any documentation on the employee’s previous performance in the employee’s personnel file?). The third question proved interesting.

Lamentably, as we would all guess, the answer to the third question was “No.”

It’s almost always “no,” right?

So much for that annual Supervisory Skills Training Class that we did not offer again last year.

In any event, the executive told me that the employee’s supervisor “all of a sudden” remembered that the employee had made a mistake about 6 months ago, another one three months ago, yet another last month, and then the final straw that supposedly broke the proverbial camel’s back occurred yesterday. Given this litany of poor performance, the supervisor and executive wanted to write up the employee for all four performance issues today, so they could terminate the employee “right now.”

You cannot make up stuff like this.

You don’t have to; because it actually happens.

Obviously, I explained that the executive could terminate the employee at any time for any legal reason, based upon the employee’s at-will status. However, in that same breath, I informed the executive that aggregating historical disciplinary issues never brought to the employee’s attention for corrective action, may be problematic if challenged legally.

I extended the tutorial by introducing the Seven-Day Rule of Employee Documentation to the executive. Forthrightly stated, any disciplinary issue not communicated to the employee within seven days of occurrence, lacks procedural justice necessarily implying intent to improve the employee’s job performance. Stated otherwise, if the supervisor does not coach an employee on a performance issue within seven days of occurrence, it is axiomatic that the incident is not severe enough to document nor use against the employee at a later date.

If it wasn’t discussed within seven days, don’t surprise an employee by referring to it in the future. That’s not being a good supervisor; that’s being unethical.

The executive acknowledged the fairness of the seven-day rule to the company culture, improving the transparency of the performance management process, as well as representing a best practice underscoring “employee development” instead of “employee discipline.” While I am reasonably confident, she terminated the employee that same day, the executive now has the awareness of conducting this process through the lens of a coach instead of as a Historian searching for events from yesteryear.

I wonder if she will include the Seven-Day Rule of Employee Documentation in next year’s Supervisory Skills Training Class?

If you have any questions or comments about this topic or anything else related to human resources, simply call me at (760) 685-3800.

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Steve Cesare Ph.D.

has more than 25 years of Human Resources experience. Prior to joining The Harvest Group, Steve worked with Bemus Landscape, Jack in the Box, the County of San Diego, Citicorp, and NASA. Steve earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University, and has authored 68 human resources journal articles. As a member of The Harvest Group, Steve’s areas of expertise include: staffing, legal compliance, wage and hour issues, training, and employee safety.  Read Steve's full bio.