Staying on track with a paper trail Records: Try to keep copies of documents you've signed, commendations and samples of your best work.

Working Life

June 23, 1996|By Deborah L. Jacobs | Deborah L. Jacobs,CHRONICLE FEATURES

Many companies are so worried about lawsuits by disgruntled workers that they document every personnel decision. Long before any problems arise, managers start building a "paper trail" of memos, policy statements and agreements that you're asked to sign. All this material comes in handy to management if you ever face off in court.

Most workers, on the other hand, don't think about building their own paper trail until things turn sour -- for instance, when they think they're being discriminated against, or are about to be sacked. By then, you may have trouble finding that glowing letter from a satisfied client, or the handbook that says you can only be fired for cause. Better to routinely keep your own records.

Good record-keeping habits don't have to jeopardize your job, either. For example, if you ask to see your personnel file once a year, chances are no one will raise an eyebrow. If anyone does, you can always say, "I think it might provide some valuable feedback to help me do a better job." In some states, the company has no choice about giving you access to the file: California law says you can see it; Pennsylvania law says the company must let you take notes; and New Hampshire law gives you a right to copy your file.

Other papers you'll want to have: any documents you've signed (like confidentiality or non-compete agreements, and promises to arbitrate legal disputes with the company); commendations from the boss or clients; and samples of your best work. Contrary to popular belief, your work (like memos, charts and reports) belongs to the company, says Janice Goodman, an employment lawyer in New York. So ask permission to take home samples for your files (you can offer to cross out names of clients or other confidential material).

If company protocol prevents you from taking certain documents, don't even consider violating the rules. Dennis O'Day, a former engineer for McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Company in Mesa, Ariz., made that mistake after the company denied him a promotion in 1990. The next evening, he sneaked into his supervisor's office looking for his own personnel file, which company rules didn't permit him to see. While he was rummaging, O'Day came across a note ranking him and others for layoff. He copied the list, and later showed it to a co-worker.

The company found out about these details when O'Day sued for age discrimination. A federal district court has yet to decide that claim. But even if O'Day wins, his damages will be limited, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said in April, because O'Day broke rules by taking the documents.

If you reach a roadblock in getting certain papers, make a list of the items (for each, include the date, the person it went to, and the general subject). Your lawyer can request these documents if you wind up bringing a case.

Another way to protect yourself is by keeping a diary and writing memos, Goodman says. A memo to your boss or to human resources might be appropriate to answer criticisms of your work, or to prove that you requested raises and promotions, for instance. Start with the positives, Goodman says. Then briefly summarize what's happened.

Once you've made the point, put your energy into your job. In case things take a turn for the worse, you'll have a paper trail.

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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