Guest Post: How to CYA at Work

How to CYA at Work | CorporetteRecord keeping — fun, right? But: it can really help you cover your butt at work when you need to. So how DO do you organize, file, and otherwise keep track of your meeting notes, emails, and phone calls? Today’s guest post brings you some excellent advice from Belle of Capitol Hill Style — CHS on CYA, so to speak. Thanks to Belle for passing along these tips (and welcome back to the blog)!

Working in politics taught me a number of valuable lessons, the most important of which was how to keep excellent records. I save emails, letters, memos, and meeting notes because you never know when you’re going to need a paper trail. So when Kat asked me to write a post detailing how to cover your ass at work, I was happy to oblige.

Let’s start with the foundation of CYA, keeping good records:

Meeting Notes

I have over 30 small, spiral-bound notebooks that span my entire career. On the outside they are labeled for job and date, e.g. “Congress. May ’07- Oct. ’07.” On the inside, you’ll find my meeting notes for every appointment labeled with the names of all attendees, their affiliation, and the details of our conversation.

These notes are a record of what was said, what was promised, and what the outcome of the meeting was. Keeping accurate notes will help clear up miscommunications and help you refresh your memory before your next meeting with those same people no matter how much time has passed in the interim.


In our digital age, having an organized inbox is crucial to your success as a professional. First off, you don’t want to lose something that you might need later or misplace an important correspondence. Secondly, you never know when your commitment to keeping good records will save your hide.

During a re-election campaign, the governor of my state came out in strong opposition to a bill my boss was supporting. Imagine the governor’s surprise when one of my co-workers reached into her inbox and pulled out a four-year-old letter, signed by him, expressing his unfailing support for a previous version of the bill he now opposed. The email took us off of the defensive, and put him on it.

So how should you organize your emails? There’s no one way to collate your inbox, but I like to organize mine by year (2014), then by issue (veterans’ affairs), then by group (National Guard). If I’m doing important work on one bill or one issue, then it gets its own folder. I also like to color-code important emails in blue, emails with important attachments in green, and emails that are contentious or from someone who opposes our position in red.

Phone Calls

Unlike emails, phone calls have a murky paper trail. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. So I keep an open Word doc on my computer titled “Important Calls.” Like my meeting notes, it details who I spoke with, when we talked, what we discussed, and what we resolved. It’s helpful to have when your boss asks for an accurate rundown of your conversation.

Avoiding a Paper Trail

Keeping good records is critical. It can help you resolve disputes, refresh your memory about past discussions, and keep your to-do list on track. But what about those times when you don’t want a paper trail?

Taking a conversation out of the digital realm is necessary when information needs to be shared off the record, apologies need to be made, or when you need to ensure that what you’re about to say can’t be passed around with a simple click of the forward button.

Basically, if you’re worried that what you’re about to write could be used against you, end up in the wrong hands, or harm the project you’re working on, do. not. put. it. in. writing. Use your best judgment, and when in doubt choose to dial, instead of type.

Phone Calls vs. Emails  

But what if you want a conversation on the record and the person you’re talking to calls you on the phone? Let’s say you’re trying to lock down support for an important piece of legislation from a staffer whose boss is less than trustworthy. The staffer is happy to tell you on the phone that his boss is on board, but you need something more concrete. You need the paper trail. Enter the follow-up email:

“Dear John, Thank you so much for taking the time to call me about Rep. Smith’s support of H.R 529. My boss will be so pleased to know that Rep. Smith is on board. His yay vote will be such a strong show of his commitment to this issue. Thank you again for all your hard work on this matter, Sincerely, Belle.”

Sure, he can claim he never said that. He can deny that he ever promised you anything, but you have a date and time-stamped record of your side of the story.

Use phone calls and follow-up emails with caution. Sometimes taking to the phones can make an innocuous conversation seem covert, while following up with an email can anger someone who wanted to keep things off the Internet. Only use these tactics when you’re sure it’s necessary.

Covering your ass is an essential job skill. It protects you, your employer, and your clients. It keeps people honest and allows you to hold yourself and others accountable. Keep good records and always remember: It’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

Pictured: Writing Tools, originally uploaded to Twitter by Pete O’Shea.


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  1. Maybe I don’t work in as adversarial an environment (law), but generally, just keeping my emails organized, having an X1 overlay in my Outlook (amazing program–makes Outlook super-searchable), and keeping detailed meeting notes is enough. I occasionally send a “memorializing email” but in all, I don’t spend my days “gotcha-ing” people I’ve worked with or across from in the past. My workplace is collaborative.

    This post came off as having sharp elbows. Or maybe having ammo to have sharp elbows? I don’t know.

    • Sydney Bristow :

      The times it has come in most handy for me wasn’t really adversarial. Most times it was my boss following up with me on an issue we were having with a vendor or customer. He loved that I could tell him I had followed up on Tuesday afternoon, vendor expects to have answer tomorrow, and that I’d call again if I hadn’t heard by then. It wasn’t usually adversarial with the vendor, but typically they dealt with so many things that they didn’t remember the details and I could quickly catch them up. It wasn’t so much CYA for me as it was staying on top of things. It did turn out to be CYA in at least one case where I wasn’t expecting a major problem though.

      • hoola hoopa :

        Agreed. I’m mid-career and have definitely had CYA occasions come up, and none of them would I describe as adversarial. Just a bad situation that needed to be documented and resolved.

        I work in a very different occupation than Belle and initially thought this post wouldn’t really apply to me, but in fact I use pretty similar approaches. In my work, the only thing I would add that’s vital is to have documents produced be clearly labeled with dates and other necessarily information for tracking back to the source.

        • Coach Laura :

          I’m in finance not law or politics and use these same tactics daily. When I don’t, it comes back to bite me.

    • I think of it as for the person surrounded by sharp elbows. And where things don’t go just a little bit wrong, but hugely and catastrophically wrong.

      Also, I live in a world where everything is electronically recorded anyway, so you need to organize all that because you can’t remember it all.

      So, I BCC myself a ton and never delete sent items (much easier to search sent items sometimes). Also, Outlook e-mail folders and I use “tasks” religiously as to-do lists for myself.

    • Anon Worker Bee :

      I think with a topic like CYA, it’s hard not to sound adversarial since it generally implies you are trying to protect yourself from something. A lot of the suggestions can be useful for organizing normal, every-day work as well.

  2. Sydney Bristow :

    I’ve always used a very similar system and it has definitely proved useful many times. Phone call notes always seem to come in the most handy. In my pre-legal career I worked with a ton of vendors over the phone and sometimes those notes were absolutely vital. I typically took notes in my notebook with the date, time, person, and summary. If it was rely important or seemed like something that would come up again I’d also add a note to the particular file it was for.

    I actually do this in my personal life too. I keep a super organized email and take phone call notes whenever I speak with my bank or someone like that. I can’t turn it off but I wouldn’t want to since it’s been so useful.

  3. Working Girl :

    I am “old school”. I keep labeled binders in my desk with e-mail printouts. I love the age of technology, but if I need something fast, I know exactly where to find it. Same with my phone call and meeting notes. This system has helped me out many times.

    • I see it the opposite way. If I need something fast and I keep track of my notes in a OneNote notebook, have emails saved in Outlook, or other electronic means, I can do a search for a keyword and find it in a few seconds and even copy and paste or attach the item to show others, versus paging through papers wondering when that issue came up and then once finding it, having to get the other person to take your word for it.

      • “Ctrl+F” is a life-saver for me, personally. Anything can be found with a good search.

    • This is SUCH a great p’ost! Thank you for outlineing it all for us. There have been all to many time’s that the manageing partner trie’s to blame me for something HE forgot to do, CLAIMEANT. That way, if there is something that is questioned, I have the answer! YAY!

      This is MY SYSTEM:

      1) Keep all email’s
      2) log all calls in the CLEINT file
      3) keep written note’s of all meetings with the cleint
      4) keep written notes of all meetings with the claimeant
      5) keep written notes of all meetings with the judge and court officieals
      6) keep e-mail proof of the submission of all papers, breif’s and other fileings with the court! YAY!

      That is why I am so INDESPENSIBELE around the office, even MORE SO then Lynn, who is suposed to be doeing all of this. Instead, she is busy nuzzeleing with Mason, who is equally useless in MY opinion. Lynn I think SHOULD be catelogeing all calls, memo’s and other thing’s for the CLEINT, but she is NOT, mainley b/c she want’s to get MASON to MARRY her. But he won’t I think b/c he is already getting sex, so why does he need to. FOOEY on men! FOOEY!

  4. I’m so glad to see other people promoting the idea of keeping notebook records! It definitely is such a useful habit to pick up. Once people know you keep consistent records in that manner then there’s little going back and forth to see who remembers what correctly. I recently posted a similar topic with tips on time keeping for those of us in the nonprofit/legal aid world:

  5. OttLobbyist :

    More love for the notebook method here! I also think it is important to remember that not everything should be an email, and that keeping something off the record doesn’t always mean someone is up to no good.

  6. Unrepentant Note-Taker and -Keeper :

    I do all of this and it is extremely useful with opposing counsel, third parties at work and in my private life (“Oh, really, Bank X, you can’t do that? Because your agent, Ms. Jane Doe, told me when I called her on the afternoon of June 1, 2013 at 1-800-XXX-XXXX that you could and it is called a code X.”)

    However, I could really use advice about two times when having and pulling out these documents isn’t productive:

    1. With a difficult family member (with whom we have to interact on child-related issues for a few more years): Difficult Family Member (DFM) writes an email saying DFM will do X by Y date for child. Y date passes. DFM is asked if s/he has done X. DFM claims s/he never said it. We show DFM DFM’s own prior email. DFM either: (1) ignores it, (2) denies it or (3) calls us names. Any suggestions? Having the backup documentation doesn’t seem to get us anywhere.

    2. With boss: Boss sends email saying do X. I do X. Boss criticizes me for doing X. I defend myself by saying “you told me to do X.” Boss says, “I did not.” I produce boss’s email. Boss is very angry. Or … Situation A arises. I ask boss what to do. Boss says, “do X.” I do. Situation A arises again. I ask boss what to do. Boss says, “Do opposite of X.” I say, “happy to do it, but wondering why not X like last time.” Boss says, “I never said X.” I produce email. Boss is very angry. Any suggestions? Having backup documentation doesn’t seem to get us anywhere.

    Thanks for nay recommendations.

    • For #1, it’s a gratuitous promise, you can’t hold them to it. If grandma promises to pay for college, but then doesn’t, too bad. Unless DFM is your ex-spouse and liable for child support–but that’s a whole different ballgame.

      • Unrepentant Note-Taker and -Keeper :

        Ding ding ding, you are correct: ex-spouse, so not gratuitous promises. But it would be nice if there were a middle ground between 0 (each parent does what s/he is supposed to) and 60 (we all go to court). So far, the middle ground has been that we just do X instead of waiting for DFM to do it. It is tiresome. The entire dynamic is tiresome. I started with some vague hope that backup documentation could help. I have abandoned that hope.

        • I think with 1) you just have to accept that X may not get done even if DFM did promise to do it. But what you can do is send an email before due date of X comes to pass, with prior email included below and say something like, “Just checking in – are you still doing X?” Maybe it will still get you no where but maybe it will lead to a more productive outcome because you won’t be putting DFM in a defensive posture.

          With 2), it’s trickier because it’s your boss so to some degree you just have to deal with it… To some degree, you just have to suck it up and deal. But maybe include boss where possible as you go along. E.g., CC boss on correspondence he tells you to send or include, “as per your instructions, I am going to…”

    • I had an old boss who used to say “1st argue the law. If that doesn’t work, argue the facts. If that doesn’t work, use common sense. And if that doesn’t work, pound the table!”

      I think you’re describing a “pound the table” situation. In that circumstance, the documentation is just a tangible reminder that you’re not crazy… and that you’re dealing with someone who disregards facts that they don’t like.

    • For #2, you may just be stuck with a crummy boss (sorry!), or you may want to work on bringing up the documentation in a non-adversarial manner.

      E.g., my boss is forgetful, has a lot of balls in the air, and has a black-hole of an inbox. Occasionally, we’ll be talking about a course of action that we took and why we took it (sometimes after things have gone south), and he’ll have zero memory of earlier conversation/communication in which he said to do X. My approach would be to say, in our follow up meeting, “We actually talked about this, and my recollection of our plans was that I was to do X. It sounds like that’s not what you had in mind, so let’s talk about our next steps.” Then, upon return to office, I might dig out my old email and forward it to him with a message like, “Just following up on our earlier conversation. I found this email about why we chose to do X, which may explain what we were thinking at the time. Perhaps we should talk through further since it seems like we may want to reconsider strategy X?”

      TL/DR – you have to be very careful in how you present CYA documentation or risk alienating the same people you’re trying to retain credibility with.

    • +1 – maybe the issue is not that you;re producing CYA documentation but that you’re doing it in a way that is harmful to your relationship with your boss. I suggest being less forceful about it – from your post, it sounds like you’re basically telling your boss that he’s wrong and then gleefully pulling out evidence to show that – it’s no wonder he’s not reacting well

    • On #2, I think you could be asking it in a way that makes your boss defensive (especially since it sounds like your boss may be predisposed to being defensive/insecure). Instead of saying: “what should I do?” And then questioning “Why not X, like last time?” after boss tells you to do not X, how about saying initially: “this came up again, should I do X, like last time, or are you thinking something else would be better this time?” That way your boss can say “yes, X sounds good” or “no, not X this time” without feeling like you are challenging his judgment, and he may be less like to say “no, I never told you X” leading to the documentation issue.

      Also, I think sometimes you need to let things go (this is on #2 still). Use backup documentation when you need to show that you are right, but sometimes you have to pick your battles. It can be ok to say, “oh, I thought had thought you said X before” when the truth is “I KNOW you said X before.”

      • I forward and reply to old emails all the time in situations like #2. So, if Boss tells me in email to do X, I’ll reply to that email with whatever X was. That way it’s all in one chain. So when the same situation comes up again, I can either forward the X email or attach it to a new message and say “Hey, here’s that same situation, do you want me to do X again?”

        • Yeah, that’s a good way to do it. You should be using your documentation here to be helpful (suggesting what to do about the situation) rather than contrarian.

    • anon-oh-no :

      Boss is very angry because no one likes to have things thrown in their face.

  7. If I am working with people who may cause problems to me, then I become extra vigilant in the conversations. I keep everything in email, cc myself the mails that I am sending. If I chat with them, then I save the chat log and email it to myself. I make sure I am politically correct. Sometimes I work with people from different geographies who just refuse to co-operate to get something done. I go to an extra length and schedule meetings during my night and their day so that in case things go very wrong, I can show how above and beyond I went to get something done and how the other side refused to co-operate. Most of the times these people refuse to accept or don’t turn up for the meeting. If they refuse to give the information, then I write in the minutes that they refused to share the information for whatever reason they have given. I send the meeting minutes to my manager even when he was not in the meeting. Sometimes I have attached the chat log where people were extremely rude and sent an email to my manager. The important thing is you have to be politically correct. You should have proof that you did everything possible to get the work done or did the right thing.

  8. Its so timely that you posted this. I am an incurable note-taker and emailer because I am one of those people who won’t remember anything UNLESS I write it down. In a world of open record requests and document retention policies, this kind of behavior has saved my butt on several occasions (in dealings with pointy elbowed folks).
    Besides emails memorializing phone conversations, though, how do you deal with old school types who either consciously avoid leaving a paper trail or want to do everything via telephone in terms of creating a defensible paper trail (especially in situations where you KNOW you are likely to have aftereffects)?

    • Anonymous :

      If you think they would be offended by a follow-up email, like what Belle suggested, I think your only recourse is a memo to file. You can also email yourself if you want to have the time/date stamp.

      • You can also email another person that you work with (maybe another associate on the case, if you’re in law) as an fyi about the conversation and then you get your recollection memorialized.

    • I work with authors in publishing. Much of the time we correspond by e-mail, but I had an old-school type who preferred to communicate over the phone. Additionally, he was unhappy with some initial work and I had to regain his trust. Every time we talked on the phone to discuss his book, I’d always take notes and end by offering to send him an e-mail summarizing our discussion. I would often propose it by saying something like, “Let me send you an e-mail summarizing all of the decisions we made here to make sure I have everything correct.” It’s a little like a false apology, but it created a record and gave me peace of mind.

  9. In Ed admin…I also keep chronological notebooks of all meetings and phone calls as Belle described. I use the medium sized moleskine ones. Slips easily into my bag, looks professional when I pull it out. I number the pages and I keep an abbreviated index in the back, building it as I go, trying to capture page numbers of stuff I’m pretty sure I’ll be looking for again. So an entry might look like this: Professional Devel. Plans. 4, 28, 31, 60

    But I’ve noticed that since I started doing this about 8 years ago I do remember things more chronologically and I can often remember about when something happened and just page through an old notebook to find it.

    Other info on the computer I file into archived folders, first by year, then topic. I can search and find easily.

  10. Medic Maggie :

    I also keep a labeled notebook for meeting notes, to-do lists, and such. It’s a composition notebook size, so it’s not huge, but big enough that I can get one meeting or phone-call’s worth of notes on a page, usually. I got one of the patterned ones from Target. They’re dated, and I’ve included a quick index in the front for major issues. Example: P 7 is my 2013 Performance Measures calculations; P 11 is a conference call with an architect about a critical issue with a project, and so on. I write to-do lists every other day or so, when I have a lot going on. It’s the only way that I can keep track of things. I even go so far as to draw myself boxes to check through.

    My email inbox is organized by project. I have a small subset of Current Projects, labeled by the type of project (site plan, subdivision, special exception, etc) and name; and a longer subset of Archived Projects. I just move the outlook folder from Current to Archived once the project is completed. I also have more general subsets like Office Emails (all the HR stuff, etc); committee emails, etc. It has helped a lot to keep things organized. I will try to go through about once a week or so to clean out the Inbox and file emails accordingly, if I don’t put them into the appropriate folder as they’re received. I don’t trust Outlook to do that job for me, because their rules are so wonky.

    Lastly, one of the things that I did at a very long-ago job was to comb-bind a bunch (250? 300?) half-sheets of scrap paper to use as my phone message book. I write down my voicemails in the book, and cross them off as I respond to calls. But the meat of any conversation goes into the notebook. The comb-bound is just name, date, phone, what they’re calling me about.

  11. But if you ever DO find yourself in an adversarial position, and the higher you go the more likely that is, these are very, very, useful tips.

  12. Anon for this :

    The only thing I would add to this is that make sure you aren’t writing down certain conversations that intentionally were held over the phone specifically to avoid a paper trail. It’s one thing to CYA, it’s another thing to create a private document that no one else knows about in your company that later becomes the smoking gun document in discovery.

  13. Great post, Belle. In addition to rigorous email filing, having a Word doc for each of my major matters has been tremendously helpful to record the upshot of client calls or why we made certain decisions (especially when managing document reviews for government investigations). Control-f is a lifesaver!

  14. Okay, as a records manager in the public sector … a lot of this stuff is not just CYA, but also being compliant to relevant legislation, and not wasting time by duplicating effort or looking for old decisions.

    There’s huge variation in how different working environments enforce this sort of recordkeeping, often based on how regulated the sector is. But lazy practices will cause big problems just about anywhere.

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