A lot of the questions asked here deal about issues between the author and their coworkers, their boss, their clients, so on and so forth. Almost every answer have something in common: document it! document everything!

However, I couldn't find anything on how to do it. How one is supposed to document something?

  • What should be written down? What should not?
  • Should witnesses be informed that an event was recorded? Should they sign it, or give their agreement in some way? Which way?
  • Where should the document be stored? At work? At home?
  • Who, in the company, should know about the existence of that document?
  • 1
    Regarding the close votes: while I agree that the question is somewhat ill-worded and could be improved (I'd have done it myself but didn't see a good edit in it), I disagree that this is company-specific as it's asking about a general work process.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 7:37
  • @Lilienthal - hopefully a title change might help a little. I think I have this right.
    – user44108
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 7:57
  • Wasn't there a Seinfeld episode involving the Documenting of Grievances? ;-) Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 18:04

3 Answers 3


When people refer to documenting something in this context, what they mean is to create a paper trail. That's proverbial these days because it will almost always be documented digitally, at least in typical office jobs.

The point of documenting is that you have a trail of accountability and a log of the reasons that fuelled a decision making process. It's often recommended for when management has shown itself to be incompetent or actively hostile and the purpose then is to have something to point to deflect blame. But those situations are rare and in reality documenting important decisions or orders is simply a good practice because managers are people too and can forget things, just like you can. It's common for a manager to ask you a few months down the line why you didn't do X for Project Y and in that case it's useful to be able to point him to your mail from that time confirming that you'd drop X as discussed for [reasons].

And that's basically what documenting is: whenever you, colleagues, management or clients decide on a particular course of action or project, you write it down. A lot of that can be done in your own personal notes while important stuff is typically summarised in an email to the involved parties. What tools you use to track stuff is largely irrelevant so long as you have a record. In a lot of companies these days people no longer write minutes for their meetings and this kind of documentation is essentially that.

One thing to remember is that the primary purpose of documenting stuff is to supplement your memory, not to assign blame. You don't want to be known as the guy who berates everyone for forgetting stuff, you want to be known as the guy who has awesome (internal, process) documentation who can always answer why we did X on Project Y or what the reasons were for not doing A on Project B. However, there are situations where you're faced with unreasonable demands or crazed management and in that case you are documenting specifically to assign blame and in order to avoid being the scapegoat. This is particularly the case when unethical or even illegal orders are given. This is often referred to as covering your ass (C.Y.A.). In this case the type of documenting you do does matter: you want something that's trackable, preferably email (but instant messengers also work), and you want to have copies that you store off-site (i.e. at home). Do note that if you're finding yourself in that kind of situation, you need to be job searching because even when you try to secure your reputation or job, that's usually not sustainable in the long term.

Here are some examples of the typical scenarios where you'd document stuff.

External Documentation

You meet with your manager, a colleague and two clients to discuss the status of a new app. The clients suddenly realise that they can't export data to PDF when they need to provide those files to a partner company in that format. This was never discussed during the setup and isn't part of the project estimate. Your manager explains that they can add that feature but the client's CFO should sign off on additional budget for five days' work. The clients happily agree.

Now, what are you going to do a few months later as the app is about to go live and you don't have that feature and the client fulminates "But you said you'd implement this!". The easy solution is to now point them to a mail you sent to everyone that said "As discussed, we don't currently plan to implement a PDF export. If that feature is required for the core release please send an approved Change Request for 5 days' work." You now have documentation to get you out of this mess, and the act of documenting in this way also means it's less likely to become a problem in the first place.

Internal Documentation

A colleague left and you've been assigned to his work on Project K and L, but you've still got projects X, Y and Z. You talk to your manager and explain that you can take up K and L but will have to drop Z and you won't be able to start on that project until next year. He agrees. Towards the end of the year, your manager is suddenly wondering why Project Z never got started. You can now explain that you discussed this with him and you agreed that Z had a lower priority than K and L.

In this case, you'd still want to document this via email to your manager, but having your own personal documentation is the bare minimum. It's very easy for both of you to forget just why Z never got started.


A colleague left and your manager tells you to use their old email account to communicate with the clients for projects K and L and pretend you're him. Instead of just blindly agreeing and taking over that account, you'd send a mail to your manager asking him to confirm that he wants you to do this. You can do so indirectly in most cases, for instance by asking him to pass you his login credentials. In many cases these kinds of questionable orders are not followed up on once you've put them in writing in a traceable form. Note that in very unreasonable companies covering your ass like this can get you fired so brush up your resume either way.

  • Good solid explanation
    – Kilisi
    Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 22:19

Terrific question.

Here's a starting point for documenting a specific issue with a co-worker. Adapt this to your circumstance.

Issue: Suppose your co-worker makes comments about your culture that you feel are disparaging. You want him to stop. You don't want to make a big deal.

Your questions are:

  1. What should be written down? What should not?
  2. Should witnesses be informed that an event was recorded? Should they sign it, or give their agreement in some way? Which way?
  3. Where should the document be stored? At work? At home?
  4. Who, in the company, should know about the existence of that document?
  5. What's the value of that document?

Let's tackle these in a different order, starting with the purpose.

What's the value of that document?

The value or purpose is to try to create an objective record (or as objective as possible) about what is going on, so that others who are not present during the events, can get some sense of what happened.

A good record will elevate "your side of the story" into a trustworthy narrative.

Imagine YOU are the boss. Two people come to you to resolve a fight. One just has some mumbling dissatisfaction. The other has a log of dates, times, and places where they disagreed, a summary of the disagreement, and sometimes specific quotes. You see from looking at the summary that (a) it's been going on for 3 months, (b) it follows a pattern, and (c) the person keeping the log has written a pretty dispassionate account.

Who do you tend to believe? Who is helping you see the fuller picture? Whose account will hold up in court if this doesn't get resolved?

What should be written down? What should not?

You are a Sikh and wear a turban. Your co-worker refers to you as a "rag-head" to your face.

Within a few minutes of the event, write down the date, time, and location of the comment, and the exact words as best you recall them.

If you feel like gently confronting the comment (and thus confronting the speaker) I urge you to try "Non-Violent Communication."

A quick summary of NVC: Observe, Feel, Need, Request.

Observe: "Joe, I hear you calling me a rag-head."

Feel: "You may not be aware that when you use that term, I feel disrespected by you."

Need: "I need both you and me to feel respected at work."

Request: "I request you not use that term."

If you do say this (or say anything) then write that down also. Keep a log of these incidents. Describe things as they would appear on a video camera.

Don't say "he got in my face" which is subjective. It's more objective to say "he stood less than a foot away from me."

Don't say "he was angry" which is an interpretation. It's more objective to say "he raised his voice, interrupted me, slammed his fist on the table, and slammed the door when he left."

What should not be written down:

  • Subjective opinions without observable facts (i.e. don't just write "Joe was a jerk again today")
  • Complaints without requests. Every complaint contains a hidden request. Make the request. Then log it.
  • Self pity. Save that for your personal journal or your therapist.

Should witnesses be informed that an event was recorded? Should they sign it, or give their agreement in some way? Which way?

Not needed in this case. I wouldn't. There may be scenarios where you should.

Where should the document be stored? At work? At home?

I'd keep it in a personal Google Drive document or even better in a spiral notebook that I scan, and keep the scan online in a personal account. Paper notes with dates/times are hard to fake and look good in court. You may not want to go to court, but good habits should be built from the very beginning.

Who, in the company, should know about the existence of that document?

Nobody at first. Maybe Joe will respond to your requests. If you have to ask a third party for help (HR, your boss, a union rep, etc.) then you can share a summary of what you wrote, or a COPY (never the original). Only share things relevant to the current issue.

I teach managers to keep written notes on the good and bad performance of every one of their direct reports. It makes performance appraisals easy and accurate.

  • Terrific answer.
    – Peter
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 14:49

This isn't complicated. Basically it's the date / time, what happened, where (as applies), and who was involved.

It's best to keep the information from prying eyes, which is harder in small organizations. Obviously, the information should be kept out of the way of parties involved. This might mean using a locked file cabinet for physical documents, or storing digital documents on a USB drive. If it makes sense, e-mail documents to yourself. There's no single approach on where, except that it shouldn't cause more trouble.

  • Why hide it? I would think it's normal to keep track of things?
    – Kilisi
    Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 14:04
  • Because if you're keeping a CYA list that involves your boss or coworkers, it'd be double dumb to leave it out in the open. That's career suicide
    – Xavier J
    Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 14:06
  • That's true, I was thinking more along the lines of work diary/tracking etc,. I've never needed anything else. +1 just for your different perspective
    – Kilisi
    Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 14:15

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