At first, the idea of keeping a file on one of your coworkers (say, screenshotting Slack conversations and saving emails) seems childish and a bit insane — after all, your life isn’t a Soviet era spy novel. But if you consider that former FBI Director James Comey kept notes on the president of the United States, and that in doing so, he kept what was left of his reputation intact even though he was ultimately fired, documenting your interactions with your co-worker or boss doesn’t seem nearly as dubious.
“While it may seem a little odd and somewhat sneaky to keep files on your colleagues, there’s something to be said for saving a ‘paper trail’ of your work email threads and Slack exchanges,” explains Amanda Augustine, career advice expert for TopResume. “This type of documentation comes in handy when you’re working with a co-worker, vendor or even a client who is known to ‘misremember’ details from your discussions and who needs to be held accountable.”
According to Nancy Halpern, principal at KNH Associates, who spoke to Fast Company last year, you should do the same if you have a boss who’s hard to deal with. “If you suspect something might be up with your company or if you have a bumpy relationship with your boss, it’s a good idea to take notes during meetings,” said Halperin.
Augustine suggests it could even be a good idea to send follow-up messages after each meeting with a summary of the conversation, next steps and action items in order to keep everyone on the same page.
As for what the notes should look like, Lifehacker has you covered:
“First, all your notes should be dated. Date the top of each page and when someone makes an important statement, put a time next to it when you write it down. Dates and times become difficult to argue against when one person says one thing and you say another.”
At which point, it might sound like we’re veering into insanity territory again. But accountability aside, since harassment in the workplace is pervasive — and usually goes unchecked — there are far more pressing reasons to keep a file on that coworker who thinks it’s okay to put their hand on your shoulder when they come up behind you.
“On a separate note, you may find it necessary to keep a file of your correspondence with a colleague if you believe the person is acting unethically or inappropriately in the workplace,” says Augustine. “This behaviour could range from sexist comments to threatening comments to outright discrimination against you or other colleagues. It’s important to document these instances, as well as report their behaviour to your manager and HR.”
Augustine does however suggest that if you can clear the air without getting HR involved, it could help you maintain a healthier work environment. “Of course, the idea of keeping a file on your co-workers implies that there’s a level of mistrust — which is never a good thing for the workplace. So if you can find a way to clear the air, set ground rules for your working relationships and better define assignments and deadlines, try to do so.”
But as most anyone who’s ever had to deal with a creepy coworker knows, the last thing you want to do is approach said creep and reason with them about how they need to stop telling you about their drinking problem. Which is why if you’re going to take it to your HR department, keeping a paper trail is only going to bolster your claim.
“If someone is truly making you feel uncomfortable in the office or you believe you are being discriminated against, document everything you can and then report the behaviour,” says Augustine. “HR is more likely to take swift action when you have solid proof of the person’s inappropriate behaviour — especially if you have others who were present at the time and are willing to corroborate your story.”
And if you’re reading this and looking over at the person sitting next to you wondering if they’ve kept track of every instance that you’ve used a ladle of their coffee creamer now and again, quit wondering: Just start looking for another job.