For managers, human resource professionals and business owners, avoiding time-consuming and costly employment disputes often rests in the hands of management. The goal is to avoid liability through the use of proper documentation and investigation techniques. Although these measures do not serve as a silver bullet to prevent disputes, they go a long way toward insulating management from the potential downsides of employment disputes.

As a precursor to properly implementing a standard for documentation and proper investigation in order to avoid employment disputes, management should invest in consulting with legal counsel. This will ensure that an adequate employee handbook is created and distributed to employees. The goal here is to set forth the company’s performance and behavior expectations, as well as detail management’s response in the face of noncompliance.

One of the first things that management should do, in response to an incident related to performance, a violation of the rules, or some other serious matter, is conduct an investigation. At the beginning stages, management should be mindful that the purpose of an investigation is fact finding. In addition, management needs to gather information in order to support its decision. When done properly, a good investigation will also reduce morale problems and ultimately further the company’s goal of preventing legal and financial losses through establishing the foundations of a legal defense.

If you need to conduct an investigation in the wake of a highly emotional incident, such as a fight between two employees or other incident of significant disruption in the workplace, it is best for management or human resources professionals to seek to implement temporary measures to calm the situation. Rather than taking action immediately, it may be advisable to remove one or more of the subjects from the workplace until the facts can be sorted out. This may mean suspending employees with or without pay to allow the opportunity for an objective investigation.

At the end of the day, employers should keep in mind the importance of proper documentation. At some point, every employer will face the prospect of disciplining and possibly discharging employees. Although there is a presumption of at-will employment in Georgia, employers should nonetheless be sure that the decisions to discipline and terminate are job-related, non-discriminatory and do no violate any contractual commitments.

Management can often meet its obligations to document through objectively preparing employee evaluations and effectively implementing a progressive discipline policy.

Ultimately, if performance or behavior issues continue, management may be forced to discharge the employee. While never an easy decision, proper documentation should help to establish that, although the employee is being discharged, they have been otherwise treated fairly and according to appropriate company policies and procedures. Before implementing the discharge or firing of an employee, the company should make sure that appropriate documentation has been created to support the decision to terminate. Management should also make sure that the employee that is subject to being discharged was treated fairly and similarly to other employees engaged in the same type of poor performance or violations of company policy.

In the end, proper documentation and investigation of employment-related disputes go a long way towards preserving management’s ability to fairly manage it employees, while at the same time preserving and supporting management’s ultimate authority to make difficult and permanent decisions regarding employment. For managers, human resources professionals and business owners, documentation is the gift that keeps on giving.

Copyright ©2011 by L&L Communications d/b/a Atlanta Tribune: The Magazine, Thomas A. Cox. Jr. Esq, author. Posted with permission from publisher. All rights reserved by the original copyright holder.