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Recordkeeping 101: Meeting Minutes

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

Have you ever had your PI make a beeline toward you, seemingly at random to give you an ass-chewing? Did you deserve it? Was the tone or the choice of words appropriate while they were telling you off? If the answer to any of these questions are "no", then you should make sure to document this encounter whenever you have a chance. Many of the things we discussed in the phone log post will apply here (such as The Five W's, for example), however, there are probably some caveats you want to be aware of. Supervisors, as I'm sure you are aware all have different personalities. Some will have no issues with you writing down notes in front of them. Others will interpret it as an act of defiance. If you are unsure, err on the side of caution, and try not write down notes in front of their face.

This is not to say don't take notes. However, unfortunately, unlike with a telephone, your supervisor can watch everything you're doing, because you're face-to-face with them. Generally speaking, a reasonable supervisor is encouraged by the fact that their subordinates are being diligent and trying to make a memorandum of their conversation, especially if something meaningful or productive was accomplished in the meeting. However, a shadier supervisor is likely to behave inappropriately, especially if they know that the true purpose of the meeting is to be rude and unprofessional toward you. They might become irritable, impatient, or irate. They might even start raising their voice at you. They might even try to threaten you with legal action, and suggest that you're breaking the law. If you're worried that this might be the case, then log the conversation after they're no longer with you.

However, if you do decide to test the waters to see if you can take notes in their presence, you might become fearful or discouraged by this type of behavior. The best way to keep your confidence up in this situation is to know what you legally can and can't do. Again, this may vary from state to state. Generally:

  1. There is nothing illegal about writing down notes, even if you catch your boss in the act of doing something toxic.

  2. If your supervisor is uncomfortable with approving your logs, they don't even have to sign them.

  3. You might even be able to take a voice recording (if the interviewee grants you permission to do so).

Keep in mind that taking notes in front of someone may look like you're psychoanalyzing them. You might want to log the conversation shortly after the incident occurred rather than in real-time.

Even if the law is on your side, if you easily get intimidated or emotionally manipulated, it is better for your mental health and memory to log post-hoc. This is especially the case if your boss is adversarial.

That said, do not voice record a conversation, unless you get your interviewee's permission to do so in advance. You also have to stop voice recording as soon as they tell you to stop, which might happen if the interviewee is about to say something self-incriminating, or has already done so. Do understand, however, that it is completely within your right to log the meeting in your handy-dandy notepad, with your handy-dandy ink pen, even if your supervisor begins to argue with you over it. Don't let him or her panhandle or fast-talk you. Take as much time as you need to record all the details of the conversation.

Also be sure to use the medium of pen and paper to your advantage. Unlike a voice recording, you can capture things, such as body language, facial expressions, or sarcasm, by taking a note of it in addition to logging down direct quotes from the interviewee. For example a voice recording might capture the following:

"Hurry up and throw up already."

However, without any context this could mean a lot of things. Maybe you ingested something poisonous and need to induce vomiting. Maybe you have the stomach flu, and by throwing up, you might feel better. Maybe your boss is condescending you and being sarcastic. Now look at the following statement:

Dr. X rolled their eyes and scoffed at Jim. Dr. X then pointed to a nearby trashcan and sarcastically commented, "Just hurry up and throw up already!"

Do you notice the difference? With a little bit of effort, you can capture way more detail then with a simple voice recording. You can establish the context in which the words were spoken. Make sure to capture these subtle details. Sarcasm, hostility, and body language can help reveal a lot about the true nature of the exchange that is being had between you and your supervisor.

Similar to phone logs, make sure to capture The Five W's:

  1. The Who: Is this a private meeting, or are other people present? Is this in a conference room, or somewhere public such as a café or a hallway? If you don't know the names of bystanders who observed the encounter as it was happening, ask them after the altercation has occurred! They might even be willing to exchange contact information with you, or be willing to serve as a witness. Just ask. The worst they will say to you is "no".

  2. The What: What was discussed or accomplished at this meeting? Anything? Just name-calling and hurt feelings? Write everything down in as much relevant detail as possible, sometimes even taking direct quotes from the interviewee.

  3. The When: When did this happen? What was the date? Did it happen in the morning, during regular business hours? Or did this happen late at night when everyone else has gone home?

  4. The Where: If this happened in a particular conference room, or a room, get the room number down. Get the building name down. Did this happen in a typical location, such as their office, or did they ambush you in the bathroom? Write all of this down.

  5. The Why: Did your supervisor have any reason for having this meeting? Was it purely spontaneous? Or was there no purpose other than to embarrass and/or humiliate you in front of other people. Write down what you think, but be careful not to lie or falsify the information just because you don't like your boss.

Finally, as mentioned in the previous post about phone logs, always make sure to transcribe your meeting minutes to a more permanent, digital format; preferably one that has minimal formatting with plain text. You can either make separate files for each encounter (as meeting minutes will likely be more detailed than phone logs), or you can keep it all together like a journal. This will again help you to remember details that you may have missed in the heat of the moment, and it will help ensure that you can follow and read your notes later if/when you have to use them as evidence.

This pretty much summarizes today's discussion. Hopefully, this was of some use to you as a reader. Get into good habits now. The sooner you start taking the notes, the easier it will be to file a complaint and demonstrate repeating offenses to an external agency. Good luck, and remember not to be intimidated, falsify any information, or do anything illegal. If you have any questions, feel free to ask me. Tomorrow, we will discuss how to maintain text messages and photographic evidence.


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