When a member approaches you with concerns about a workplace issue, you just never know if everything that follows might find itself in front of an arbitrator or other adjudication body in the future. That’s why it’s critical that Stewards keep written, dated notes of all interviews and meetings you participate in when they are related to an incident or issue in the workplace.
There are two main reasons to take notes. First, notes create a record. Dated notes made at the time of an incident, interview or meeting are admissible evidence at arbitration and other quasi-judicial hearings. When recording an event, stick to the facts: What occurred? When did it happen and where? Who witnessed it? If it’s possible to take pictures or video while the event is occurring, do so (if that doesn’t violate the conditions of your employment).
Second, notes can help you and/or the Grievor recall conversations or events if called to testify. Arbitration hearings often occur many months following an incident and memories fade. A witness’s credibility is boosted tremendously if they can explain that their detailed recollection was informed by the notes their Steward took at the time or immediately following.
This is not to say that it’s necessary to grab pen and paper and start taking notes every time a member talks to you in your capacity as a Steward. Instead, focus on listening to the main points of what the member has to say. If it’s complicated or involves a lot of details, ask them for permission to take notes. Otherwise, you can make your notes after the conversation is over. It’s more important at this point that the member feels listened to than it is for you to have a verbatim record of the conversation. Make your notes in point form and leave lots of white space so you can fill in the blanks later.
The best notes focus on the main facts and concerns. It is important to remember that others may need your notes later (a Membership Services Officer or a Union Representative in Disputes and Arbitration, for example) so if your handwriting is illegible, consider typing your notes as soon as you’re able to. In all cases, when you are taking notes as a Steward, keep in mind that the notes are the property of the Union and should NEVER be shared with the Employer under any circumstances.
If you plan to use a device to take your notes, keep in mind that some people might find your keyboarding distracting so be sure to ask whomever you are meeting with if they are okay with you using a phone or tablet to type notes. Be prepared that they may say “No” and have paper and pen on hand as a back-up.
People talk a lot faster than you can write or type so to be an effective note-taker, you’ll want to develop some sort of shorthand and be consistent in its use. (See below.) If you are taking notes during a disciplinary interview, be sure to distinguish who says what by using the abbreviations suggested below or the speaker’s initials in front of the statements they make. As above, don’t try to write down every word they say. Capture the key points and most important words and fill in the blanks later. Once you have cleaned up your notes (filled in the blanks, corrected spelling mistakes, etc.), in some cases, you might want to go over them with your Grievor to ensure what you’ve documented is accurate but never add anything unless you know that it’s true. Once you’ve done that, your notes should be immediately forwarded to your MSO.
Your notes could make the difference between a member losing a day’s pay or even losing their job. Proper notes can give your MSO or Union Representative the ammunition they need to get justice for members. It might not be the most glamorous or exciting activity and can take a lot of practice to do well, but the ability to take good notes can often be the most important skill a Steward can possess.
Commonly Used Abbreviations and Symbols:
+ plus, and
= equal, same
& plus, and
ER for the Employer (the boss or their representative in the meeting)
GR for Grievor
UN for Union
S for Steward
CA for the collective agreement