Recently, I watched the testimony of Jody Wilson Raybould, Canada’s former Justice Minister, who was appearing before the Parliamentary Justice Committee as part of the SNC-Lavalin investigation.   Her sincerity, composure and resolve were impressive.   She seemed very confident and self-assured.   I then got to wondering how she actually developed these exemplary characteristics.  Was it her legal training, experience as a prosecutor, or the training she received while serving as a member of an Aboriginal Band Council? 

Note-Taking is an Important Business Skill

Whatever her training, one thing really resonated with me:  Wilson-Raybould kept copious and detailed notes of her meetings, phone calls and interactions with public servants, fellow Cabinet Ministers and the Prime Minister.  This not only served to confirm her recollection of events, but also, to bolster confidence in her reasoning and line of argument.

I have said many times that note-taking is an important and often neglected business skill.  Since my high school days I have always been a fastidious note-taker.  Fellow students, whenever they missed or skipped a class, would seek me out and request I share my notes with them.  Later in my career I made it a habit of always taking notes in meetings or during phone conversations.   I was frequently ridiculed and chided. During one meeting I recall a supervisor specifically asked me to stop taking notes.  To this day I’m not sure whether her anxiety was due to fear or personal discomfort, or perhaps that my record of events would prove more reliable than her memory.

In this era of sophisticated technology why, might you ask, would someone even bother writing down what was said during a meeting or phone conversation?  Why not just record it or tape it?  Here are some good reasons why:

Why Note-Taking is Important

  1. Taping a conversation, without express approval, isn’t always permitted, and can put others on the defensive.  It may be illegal, and at the very least, intrusive. Handwriting, by contrast, is considered socially acceptable.
  2. Note-taking is considered a sign that the person taking hand-written notes is serious about the meeting, and actually believes what is being said by others is sufficiently important that it is deserving of being noted.
  3. Note-taking is a great way of creating a historical record of what was said or what transpired.  These records can prove helpful in future, especially when events or facts are in dispute.
  4. The actual process of handwriting helps as a memory aid, almost as much as the content of what is written down.

There are three areas where, I believe, note-taking should be used by employees:

1) Critical Incident Work Diary:  If I were counseling an employee starting out in their career my advice to him or her would be to purchase a personal notebook, keep it at home, and every night record important accomplishments, conversations or events that occurred that day.  Pay particular notice to the date, time, who was involved, and what was said or done.  This type of information is extremely invaluable during performance reviews, especially if someone challenges or questions your actions.

2) Meeting & Phone Call Diary:  Meeting diaries are invaluable.  I would suggest recording not just what was decided, but actually, who said what during each meeting.  I would make a habit of recording the date, time and location of a meeting, and who was in attendance.

3) When Dealing withProblem Children”: Problem children are those individuals in your work life with whom you may have a problem or concern.  It could be a supervisor, a co-worker, someone who may be causing you undue stress, or a person who may be discriminating or harassing you.  While it may not be possible or even advisable to record the particulars of an incident, meeting or phone call at the same time it may be occurring you need to do this as soon as possible.  Be very careful to record what was said or done, how it was said or done, where the incident occurred, as well as dates and times.  If, in future, you need to make a claim or take action the level of detail you can provide can present a very compelling argument.

Is it all right to use a computer for note-taking?

My answer to this question may surprise you.  My answer is a clear and unequivocal “No”.  Here is why.

Information contained on a work computer is the employer’s property.  If, for some reason, you lose access to that computer record due to loss of the device, inadvertent deletion of a file, the crashing of the hard drive, or termination of employment, you are at a serious disadvantage.

By contrast, if you purchase a notebook from a retailer, and the price tag is still on the product, and you have a receipt that you can show confirming purchase, then that product and what is in it belongs to you.  If the product is not something commonly found or purchased at your place of employment you have further justification for claiming it is personal property.

Is this all about “CYA”?

I am sure there are some reading this blog who may perceive this is a “Cover Your Ass” article.  I daresay they may be right, especially in cases where one’s employment or well-being may be threatened.  However, taking notes goes far beyond ensuring that your butt is protected.

Today’s workplace is one of constant change.  Employees routinely juggle multiple priorities.  When I left my last employer four years ago I would, at any given time, be handling up to sixty different projects and initiatives of varying degrees of challenge and complexity.   My circumstances were no different to the challenges faced by most employees today.

In this age of project management, matrix reporting relationships, multi-tasking, a renewed focus on accountability, and employees who are expected to do more with less, it is vitally important to maintain an effective record of what occurs or was said.  Few of us are gifted with a photographic memory, and the stresses and demands of our careers means we can’t afford to lose or misplace information.  The better your recall, the better the probability of success.

A Final Thought…

Near my house there is a Dollar Store where I can buy a package of four loose-leaf, lined paper notebooks for less than $5.  Assume a page per day, and 60 pages per notebook, and 20 work days per month, and that $5 package could probably last you a year, give or take a few pages.

The question I would pose to you is this:  is $5 too heavy a price to pay for something that could ultimately provide you with a documented record and, by extension, peace of mind?  I suspect not.