Documentation is everything.

By Anthony Noel

It’s often said that it’s never easy to fire someone.

From a purely emotional standpoint, that’s true. Managers experience everything from extreme guilt to days (sometimes weeks) of insomnia when “sacking” someone (as the Brits say) becomes their only option.

But let’s look past the emotional aspects for a moment and consider what leads to the decision itself. Doing so makes a couple of things clear: (1) Terminating an employee should not be done whimsically or arbitrarily, and (2) it should therefore be possible to document the behaviors that led to the employee’s dismissal.

Some call it three strikes and you’re out, some call it a warning system. But whatever name we give it, the idea is the same: To let employees know in exact terms when they’ve run afoul of the rules, and to make clear that continued transgressions will result in personalized escort service to the nearest exit.

To illustrate, we’ll need an example. Let’s use...hmmm...Cost Accounting! Big surprise, right? (Regular readers know I consider Cost Accounting the key to small-shop profitability.)

Also called job costing, cost accounting keeps careful track of job-specific expenses, from design through delivery. Done right, the practice yields an accurate after-the-fact analysis of the project’s financial success and leads to consistent improvement in a shop’s before-the-fact (estimating) process, based on the real-world lessons it offers.

The thing is, effective costing relies on accurate information. And the biggest chunk of information – hours worked on the job – comes straight from the folks on the shop floor.

While sophisticated electronic productivity-tracking techniques are widely used in production operations, such systems can be too costly for many small shops or impractical for certain customoperations. But having employees themselves track their job-specific tasks and time brings its own set of issues, chief among them the fear that employees won’t accurately record the hours they spend on specific jobs.

Managers often complain that workers “forget to record,” or worse, “don’t care to,” or worst of all, “make up” their numbers, which stops costing initiatives that have scarcely begun. But what really brings a halt to these efforts – and, in turn, prevents the shops in question from becoming more profitable – is NOT employees’ failure to provide accurate info. It is managers’ failure to require the information AS A CONDITION OF CONTINUED EMPLOYMENT.

It doesn’t matter if you have 10 employees and are instituting job costing next Monday or hiring your first employee and getting it started today. If you want accurate numbers on a daily basis but don’t make it mandatory – well, put simply, it ain’t gonna happen.

Think about it. Say you expect employees to start work at a given time each day but don’t make doing so a condition of their employment. What will happen? Same goes for wearing safety gear, or calling in when they’ll be out sick. If you don’t put some teeth in your rules by providing consequences for infractions, what are those rules really worth?

Which brings us back to the importance of documenting employee behavior.

When you hire a new employee, you (hopefully) give them an orientation session, covering the rules by which your company runs. As with hours of operation, safety gear requirements and calling in sick, recording hours worked on each project should be presented as one of your hard-and-fast rules.

Another part of new employee training should be a clear statement that failure to follow the rules will result in disciplinary action, and that repeated infractions will lead to suspension and/or dismissal. “Disciplinary action” can mean whatever you want it to. But the surest way to make it mean something to the employee – and to reduce the chances that a terminated employee will have a viable claim to unemployment compensation – is by documenting the disciplinary actions you take up to and including their dismissal.

Such documentation should include the date, a description of the infraction and, most important, the employee’s signature, acknowledging the infraction. Give the employee a copy and keep one on file.

It is also important to use specific, clear terms for each step of the disciplinary process. Most companies begin with a “verbal warning,” after which “written warnings” begin.

So, let’s say you’ve completed your new hire’s orientation. You’ve reviewed the form on which he must enter job names, hours worked and tasks completed each day.

You’ve told him that he must track his work throughout the day, because it is impossible to accurately record the jobs and hours worked at the end of the day. You’ve also explained that, for his first few days, you’ll check his job time cards at morning, lunch and afternoon break times, both to make sure he’s recording the information and to check that he’s doing it properly.

But on Monday of the new hire’s second week, you notice he’s entered nothing on his card – and it’s lunchtime. By calling the employee on this IMMEDIATELY after his lunch break, you begin the warning process. A strongly worded verbal reprimand is all that’s required, along with a promise that further warnings will be “in writing and may lead to dismissal,” which, you hope, will not be necessary.

Make lots of eye contact, and if it’s not returned, keep those warning forms handy. This probably isn’t your guy.

Three weeks or three months or three years later, if this employee has accumulated two written warnings and breaks the rules yet again, the third form you should prepare for his signature is his “notice of dismissal.”

Firing people may never be easy on an emotional level. But much of its complexity vanishes when you have clear documentation of their failure to comply to the conditions of their employment.

Anthony Noel owned and operated Noel Custom Woodworking for 15 years. He is now a consultant, helping custom shops with the business of woodworking. He has written for the magazine since 1994. Past articles are available at Send him e-mail at

‘Ask Tony’


In the middle of summer I made a set of unfinished oak frame-and-panel cabinet doors for a customer of mine. They let the doors sit for almost two months in a house with an uncontrolled climate before finishing them. Of course by then, the lack of protection had caused the doors to swell and separate. I am now being sued.

I am trying to gather as much info as possible on how to properly handle a set of doors prior to finishing and the results if they are not handled properly. The lumber was kiln dried, however, I did not specifically discuss how quickly they needed to be finished because this was a regular customer who should have been aware.

Stan Nichols

Brandon, MS


Thanks for your question.

Let me preface my response by reminding readers that I’m not a lawyer, and that it never hurts to retain one when involved in any legal proceeding.

That said, Stan, if your customer bought unfinished cabinet doors with the clear understanding they were being provided unfinished, your responsibility for the doors ends when the doors are accepted, as far as I’m concerned.

Finish helps protect the wood and diminish moisture absorption, and since you have no control over when the buyer will apply finish, I think any court would agree that your customer’s acceptance of the doors equals satisfaction with the doors as provided.

Your customer’s case is further weakened by the fact that he has purchased unfinished doors from you in the past, finished them promptly and had no such problems.

Had the customer come back in a couple of days, he might have a partial claim. But even then, you don’t know where the doors were stored or how they were handled, and more to the point, it’s not your concern.

Your customer knew what he was buying and accepted the doors as provided, and that’s what I would point out in court, if they really want to take it that far.


I read your article on the sales process and loved it (CWB, March 2007). I especially like your idea of a contract submitted at the time of proposal. It is a great (and easy, non-pushy) way to “ask” for the sale – which is what we are always told to do, but not told how to do it!

Would you be willing to share a blank or template contract like the one you mentioned in the article? I’m no lawyer, so a bit of a head start on the terms and conditions would be really helpful.

Mike Dopf

Owner, Master Craftsman

Ingrained Style Furniture Co.

Calgary, Alberta, Canada


Click here to download Tony's contract template.

Glad to help out, and while I’ll (again) remind readers that I’m no lawyer, the template I sent you has worked well for me. I’ve shared it with seminar attendees. Readers can request a free copy at or download it here.

Questions for Tony?

Got a question? An experience you’d like some feedback on? Send your e-mail to Please put “Ask Tony” in the subject line. Even if your question is not used in the magazine, Tony will do his best to respond personally via e-mail. Because CWB reaches the desks of company owners and managers, we gladly preserve questioners’ anonymity upon request.

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