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Record 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:
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.
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.
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