Document Your Performance to Get the Recognition Your Deserve at Work

Put yourself on a “Continuous Improvement Plan”—together with your boss, spell out expectations for your performance. Keep track in writing as you complete each item. Regularly report to your boss and have him or her document exactly how and when your concrete actions met expectations every step of the way.

Most managers rarely document performance unless they are required to do so. In fact, other than the inadvertent paper trail of automatically recorded data, notes, paperwork, end-product reviews, and e-mail correspondence, there is a good chance that most of your day-to-day work is not documented by anyone. The bulk of your formal personnel file probably consists of mid-year and annual reviews, maybe some annually updated development plans, your rankings if the company ranks employees, numbers if they are tracked, occasional nominations for bonuses and awards, and, of course, any formal write-ups of misconduct or persistent failure.

Still, in the regular course of business, managers do accumulate random documentation. Take e-mail for example. Whether or not you or your boss(es) realizes it, e-mail messages may document the details of much of your day-to-day performance. When you use e-mail, especially in dialogue with your boss, you create detailed contemporaneous records that may well spell out expectations, evaluate work in progress, and record praise for or criticism of your work. You should be aware of that fact and keep your own paper trail of saved e-mails organized in folders.

When do most managers most rigorously document performance? Unfortunately, it’s often not until an employee has demonstrated serious performance problems for some period of time. In such situations, HR provides managers with a formal process for documenting the employee’s problematic performance or behavior. This formal documentation process is intended to help the manager meet the requirements for taking disciplinary action. The process usually includes a date and time log for recording verbal requests and verbal warnings, as well as a process for written warnings. Usually, after the second or third written warning, the manager can put the employee on what HR professionals call a “PIP,” which stands for “performance improvement plan.”

Here’s how the typical PIP works: The manager and the problem employee meet to spell out in minute detail vividly clear expectations and to work out a plan for what the employee needs to do to improve performance. Goals are broken down into concrete steps and to-do lists with tight deadlines and guidelines, and parameters are put in no uncertain terms. Every week, or sometimes every day, the manager sits down with the employee to evaluate exactly how the employee’s performance has met the expectations in the PIP. In other words, this process actually forces the employee and the manager to engage in the kind of performance tracking they should have been doing together every step of the way!

Instead of waiting for a performance problem to rear its ugly head, put yourself on a PIP. Call it something else if you like. How about a “Continuous Improvement Plan”? Whatever you call it, this is the perfect format for helping your boss document your performance every step of the way: Together with your boss, spell out expectations for your performance in terms of concrete actions you can control. Keep track in writing as you complete each to-do item and meet each requirement, as you achieve each goal and beat each deadline. Regularly report to your boss exactly how and when your concrete actions met or exceeded the expectations you set together. Help your boss document exactly how and when your concrete actions meet expectations every step of the way.

Create a Simple Process You Can Stick With

You need to work out a tracking system for documenting your work for every single boss. But the last thing you or your boss wants or needs is a bunch of cumbersome paperwork that slows everything down. Work out a system that is simple, practical, and easy to use so you and your boss can stick with it.

One approach is to keep a notebook or a diary in which you take notes all day long about assignments received, goals set, guidelines laid out, intermediate and final deadlines, to-do lists, and concrete actions you take. Include tools such as checklists to guide you in the performance of your work. If you have multiple bosses, consider creating a template for each boss. If you have some recurring tasks and responsibilities, consider creating templates for that work. Keep refining your system to streamline it and make it easier for you to keep track in writing.

If you prefer to keep track using electronic tools, all you need is a database and a scheduling program that allows you to create a data record for each boss and/or for each separate work matter. As soon as you receive a new assignment or a change to an existing assignment, enter the information into the electronic record. Create templates for each of your bosses, and for ongoing tasks, responsibilities, and projects. Use the electronic tools to create an ongoing record of your work.

The advantage of electronic tools is that they usually force some logic and organization into your documentation system. Also, your notes are captured digitally and are automatically dated and time-stamped. You also can cut and paste key e-mail correspondence, including the back-and-forth messages between you and your boss that help document your performance, and keep that text right in the notes section of the appropriate record in your tracking system.

Whether you use a notebook or an electronic tool, you need to capture certain key pieces of information:

  • Expectations: Goals and requirements that were spelled out. Instructions given or to-do lists assigned. Standard operating procedures, rules, or guidelines reviewed. Deadlines set and timelines established.
  • Concrete actions: Your actual work as you complete each to-do item, achieve each goal, fulfill each requirement, and meet each deadline.
  • Measurements: How your concrete actions are matching up against the expectations: Have you met or exceeded requirements? Did you follow instructions, standard operating procedures, and rules? Did you meet the goals on time?

When you are keeping track, remember that you are creating a contemporaneous record of your work performance. Never write down anything personal about a boss, a coworker, a customer, a vendor, or anyone else. Focus on keeping notes about your work, and your work alone. Use specific, descriptive language, such as, “Followed Interviewing Guidelines to interview three job applicants,” or “Submitted final report for XYZ project three days before the deadline.” Don’t use vague language or broad “naming” words such as “slow,” “successful,” “good,” “sloppy,” “incomplete,” or “difficult.” Stick to clear descriptions of concrete actions in terms of goals, guidelines, and deadlines.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Tulgan is the best-selling author of numerous books, including “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy” (revised and updated, 2016), “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap” (2015), “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014), and “It’s Okay to be the Boss” (revised and updated, 2014). He has written for The New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training magazine, and the Huffington Post. Tulgan can be reached by e-mail at; followed on Twitter @BruceTulgan; or via his Website,


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