Documenting Employees in A Restaurant

Documenting Employees; Mean or Part of Running a Business?

It is tough being a manager; they wear multiple hats at the same and have a huge amount of responsibility. One of the tasks that takes away from high-level elements of the job is the dreaded write-up or documenting of employees.  Documenting employees serves both positive and negative means for an employer.

Why is it is Necessary To Document Employees?

The reasons to document employees range from encouraging personal growth to keeping the troops in line.  A smart manager will document everything to avoid paying unemployment or even in some cases, have evidence to terminate an employee.  In unionized hotels and restaurants (mostly in unionized hotels) terminating an employee can be quite difficult, which is a very different situation and relevant to a small portion of the restaurant industry as a whole.  Unionized employees is more of a hotel issue, than a restaurant issue as most unionized restaurants are in hotels.

A manager that documents employees doesn’t always enjoy it, however it must be done to be successful and hold employees accountable for their actions while on the job.  Remember, a manager cannot be responsible for what an employee does off the clock, especially an hourly employee.  Salaried employee are technically always on call and need to be available as needed, unlike hourly employees.  It is also easier to fire a salaried employee for making bad decisions out of work than an hourly employee.

Documenting employees is extra work and more importantly paperwork at that!  More paperwork is the last thing a manager needs in their day.  However, it is a necessary evil in order to maintain accountability and keep records of progressive discipline.  Sometimes employees might be late, other times, they might make a mistake on orders that cost the restaurant upwards of $70 (mis-ordered steak or lobster tail), especially in fine-dining or a prime steakhouse.

Product is expensive, mistakes are even more costly, even wonder what happens when a steak goes out medium that should have gone out medium-rare?  It gets pricey and sadly is one of the costs of doing business.


What do Employees do That Makes them be Documented?

Anything and everything!!!

Sometimes you have to do right thing: documenting employees

Thank you to workable.

When was the last time you were out and saw hourly employees, not managers on a cell phone?  Probably recently and it probably bothered you!  It sure bothers us and takes away from the experience.  Generally, everything can wait until an employee goes to the bathroom or for the shift to end!

Cell phones are the #1 thing besides tardiness that employees gets documented for, in our opinion  Dismissing an employee for being on a cell phone or being late can be a bit questionable though.

A few of the other reasons employees are documented range from being rude to guests, to calling in on short notice, having guests walk out without paying, complaints about service or missing an order.

What is Progressive Discipline?

Progressive discipline is a concept according to Indiana University Human Resources that is “the process of using increasingly severe steps or measures when an employee fails to correct a problem after being given a reasonable opportunity to do so. The underlying principle of sound progressive discipline is to use the least severe action that you believe is necessary to correct the undesirable situation. Increase the severity of the action only if the condition is not corrected.”

Included in these steps are terms such as:

  • Write Up, Documenting, Violation, Warning or Paper
  • Suspension
  • SPI (suspension pending investigation)
  • File Review
  • The ever popular TERMINATION
  • The Donald Trump “You’re Fired!”

In the restaurant business this can mean reduced/slower shifts, changing of schedule or demotion and even termination as mentioned above.  Progressive discipline also involves coaching.

How Can Coaching Help Employees with Negative Behaviors?

Through coaching (progressive discipline) a restaurant manager is able to show an employee how to correct the behavior or how to do their job properly.  This establishes the employer is providing a duty to the employee and encouraging their growth and development as opposed to failure.  Coaching employees is about improving their performance.  An employee that performs their best is usually a very happy employee making money in the world of tipped employees.

Coaching employees through these digressions can be what makes or breaks the business.  They can also be the difference between good ratings on Yelp! or TripAdvisor which can greatly affect the flow of business for a restaurant.  Consistency is key, even if it is consistently blah service with amazing food or the opposite.  We once had a professor that said, people speak with their feet in hospitality.  They still do in the digital age with an app telling them where to go.

What Happens When Coaching Doesn’t Work for Restaurant Employees?

The value in coaching is that it isn’t just for discipline, it can be to help top performers as well!  There is always an opportunity to gain some more incremental sales for the entire service team.  However, if the coaching doesn’t result in a positive change, the ensuing documentation is a record of the discussion and attempt by management and/or peers to help the employee.

People sometimes do not follow directions, then documentation must happen

Walk in a line, do not stray from the pack.

Documentation creates a record, names the behavior or action that has caused a problem and how to correct it.  When this fails to change the employee’s actions, something has to be done…

What Are An Employers Options When Progressive Discipline Doesn’t Work?

Employers have quite a few options when discipline if not effective at correcting actions/behaviors that are detrimental to a restaurant as mentioned above, they are:

  • Reduced Shifts
  • Demotion
  • Reassignment
  • Suspension
  • Termination

This list can go on for a little longer, but no point in beating on a dead horse.  The point in understood.  Even the options a manager has are progressive in progressive discipline, it is quite the novel concept.  Each possible outcome tends to be worse than the next up to termination.  Now, how those options play into the discipline will differ.  From our experience, demotion and reassignment don’t really work as a means of progressive discipline.

Why Are Options Such as Demotion and Reassignment Used Infrequently?

Demotion and/or Reassignment look good on paper as alternatives to suspending or terminating an employee.  However they are the most surefire way to have an employee quit!  Know what happens when you tell a server they will now be a food runner?

Ever let a dog loose when a squirrel, rabbit or cat is a yard?

Those critters get out of the yard pretty quickly!!

Demoting sounds good, until you realize, making that server a runner cost them their car payment.

In a hurry to get out after that demotion?

Demoting an employee can be like throwing gasoline on a fire, in addition to embarrassing them in front of their peers.

An alternative is to retrain the employee or offer the a smaller section/lower volume days to improve their performance.  Putting an employee in training again or giving them slower/lower volume shifts keeps the employee around.  It also motivates to get better at their job, as opposed to feeling insulted and defeated.  It is always easy to go find another serving/bartending job if an employee feels disrespected or not valued.  The can quit on Tuesday and be training elsewhere on Thursday.  It is also expensive to hire new employees and train them, as opposed to giving a current employee slower shifts to improve/change their behavior.

Why Suspension or Termination?

If write ups do not succeed in correcting bad behavior or improving servers performance, suspensions and/or termination might occur.  In extreme instances, it is possible for an employee to be suspended or even terminated on the first offense without any documenting.  An employee caught stealing or being drunk/high on the job can be terminated on the spot! Being inebriated on the job is an offense that can severely hurt the appearance of a restaurant.  You cannot also forget the fact that an employee working drunk is much more likely to hurt themselves on the job…

The cliche says restaurant employees and managers tend to always be drunk on the job isn’t true.  Many managers save their drinking/drugs for when they are not working.  While many are sober while on the job, there is always a few bad apples in the bunch and they can make it quite funny for the restaurant.  Also, there is no guarantee about not being hungover, but is that any different than office workers after happy hour???

In this case the drunk/high employee can be terminated on the spot.  Much of the time a process must be followed to properly terminate an employee.

The Process to Terminate an Employee IS….

PAPERWORK; not a lot, but a little bit.

To properly terminate an employee, a few things must happen at a minimum.

  • A pattern of behavior must be established.
  • Effort on the employer side must be made to show the opportunity to improve has taken place.
  • All interactions about discipline have been documented.
  • Suspension happens after a pattern has been established.
  • A “fair and final” warning can be made after suspension.
  • An employee might not return after suspension.

Management/HR has the final say in who gets to come back from suspension and who is terminated after enough documentation.  The word discretion is very important here.  Managers are the final word in suspending and terminating employees.  It is their word against the employees’ word!  Usually the employer has the upper hand with the exception being a unionized environment as mentioned before which is a very different situation and one not worth delving into.

We have mentioned the first three bullet points and now want to jump into the second three as they get to the nitty-gritty and ultimate purpose of documenting employee digressions.

What Is Suspension (SPI or Suspension Pending Investigation)?

Suspension or SPI (Suspending Pending Investigation) means that an employee is suspended pending an investigation of their employee file and past digressions.  During an SPI, other factors are often pondered by management. This includes the availability of other employees to cover the shifts or the value brought to the table by the employee.

In the progressive discipline framework, an employee has the least control of the outcome at this point.  Through their behavior it has fallen out their hands and into that of management/HR.  This is where management discusses options for the employee and if they deserve another chance.  Their employee file becomes paramount as management decides the employees’ fate.  Suspension can be stressful for both management and employees. Sadly, more often than not management’s mind is already made up on the fate of the employee. Still, a small chance looms for an employee to come back under a  “Fair and Final” warning.

 What is “Fair and Final”?

Fair and final is a term used when bringing an employee back after suspension.  This means the employee is well aware that they are skating on very thin ice.  It is a time for redemption and puts in pretty clear language what happens for even the slightest slip up.  It is a get out of jail free card, however it leaves the employee on house arrest.

Documenting Keeps Management in control.

Fair and Final is the equivalent of wearing an ankle bracelet.

When an employee is on fair and final, it usually means they are welcomed back due to being a valued member of the team.  Alternately, it can mean they are in a position that is hard to replace.  In some positions, such as banquet captain, sommelier, sushi cook/chef, it can be difficult to fill or train a new hire.  This gives the employer time to find a replacement or decide what terms the employee is coming back on.  Remember, the employee is all the mercy of the employer at this point.

Termination: The Final Solution

After suspension, fair & final or any gross offense it is usually time to part ways with an employee.  When this time comes it isn’t easy for an employer.  Terminating/firing an employee is always a lot of work.  An employer must put together the employee’s file with all previous infractions, write ups and documented conversations.  This helps justify the employers’ decision and reasons for the firing.  Additionally, all the record keeping and documenting has a most sinister purpose: avoid paying unemployment.

While many restaurants outside of the union atmosphere do not have a policy of documenting employees or writing them up, those that do the documenting and writing up rarely end up with people collecting unemployment.  It is sad and evil, however, employers pay taxes based on how many fired employees receive benefits.  The more employees that get benefits, the higher the insurance goes (in some states it can be as high as 5% of sales).  In a low margin business, that can add up, especially since you are paying the state.  Pissing them off usually isn’t a good idea.

How Does Firing an Employee with Proper Documentation Protect an Employer?

While the reasons behind letting an employee go and using progressive discipline are ultimately to avoid paying unemployment, it is a sign of integrity and organization in the employer.  The last thing an employer needs/wants is a disgruntled former employee to claim harassment, racism or something civil rights related and collect unemployment. Clearing that issue up can take quite a while.

An employer that has documentation is doing the world a favor by having the records.  It shows the interactions that have taken place and that the employer is playing by the rules.  These records also show the employer gave the employee the opportunity to fix the problems.  All of the records and documentation make the unemployment offices’ job easy.  There is a paper trail of interactions and consequences for not changing.

Documenting has an end game.

When the employer is out of options, shoot off the cannons or employees.

Employers that have a practice of documenting employees and keep records of it may seem mean, however, they actually are doing the employee a favor.  They do not reward bad behavior with a 26 week parachute of checks.  Many employees receive unemployment due to the employer not filing proper paperwork and firing them.  It is a nice thing to do, but when an employee is termed for not following the rules it is almost a reward.


Documenting employees is a process that puts more on managers that have limited time in the first place.  However the purpose it serves and goal it represents is a far greater cause: accountability, growth and improvement.  No manager likes to fire employees, it is a difficult conversation to have, especially with an employee you know and have worked with.  But this is a business and the show must go on…

Spread the word with the whole staff!

Leave a Reply