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When Someone Lies in Meeting Notes

James (not his real name), a contract manager at a public agency, wrote to me about a delicate situation. His job includes recording the minutes of the meetings his team has with the contractor’s team. James submits the meeting notes to the contractor for review and approval. 

According to James, the contractor has tried to change meeting notes into notes for a meeting he wishes had happened, adding topics that he never brought up at the meeting. In the past, James has wisely told the contractor that meeting notes should include only what has occurred at the meeting. James informed him that if the contractor wanted to cover additional topics, he could add them to the agenda of a future meeting. Or he could email everyone and have a "discussion" by email. 

James thought the contractor had finally understood the role of meeting notes. Yet for the latest minutes, the contractor has again added topics that he did not bring up at the meeting–or at any meeting. Confronted by James, the contractor insists that he did make the statements, and he wants James to include the statements in the minutes. 

What should James do? How should he handle these meeting minutes and the contractor's statements? What can he do to prevent this situation in the future?

Please share your advice for James, especially if you have experienced a similar dilemma. I am traveling all day tomorrow, but I hope to share my suggestions and comment on yours on Thursday. 

If you would like insights, tips, strategies, and templates for taking meeting notes and minutes, take my online self-study course Meeting Notes Made Easy

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Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

9 comments on “When Someone Lies in Meeting Notes”

  • Lynn, this sounds like a tricky situation for James. Giving this contractor the benefit of the doubt, perhaps James could ask to record the meeting next time, or request that more than one person be taking meeting minutes. That way there would be no doubt as to what was and wasn’t actually brought up.

  • This contractor’s behaviour sounds very dodgy to me and James should certainly resist their attempts to rewrite history. It could cause James and his organisation an awful lot of trouble. Imagine if these notes were to end up being used in court in a dispute about who did/knew/agreed what at a certain time? Shudder.

    I’d be interested to see James’s notes, though. Meeting notes should be brief and focus on action points – i.e. the things each attendee is expected to do before the next meeting. They should avoid a “he said, she said” approach. I wonder if the contractor feels he can add stuff because the notes currently take the form of a rather loose document that records the thrust of conversations, but not specific action points. Can James rationalise the document to emphasise only what actions have been agreed by all parties?

    That way, at the end of the next meeting, James could summarise verbally what’s been agreed. For example: “To sum up. Bob agreed to investigate x and report back; Jenny will compile metrics for x; Jill will contact HR about recruiting a project manager. I’ll put all that in the meeting notes and circulate them tomorrow. Is there anything I missed?”

    Alicia’s suggestions are very good too.

    Also, does James not have a manager he can broach the issue with?

  • James could also use the agenda from the meeting as an additional attachment for his minutes by way of reference. If the agenda is handed out to all attendees it will be more difficult for lies to be added.

  • Yes, I’ve had a similar situation. This is all about communication (duh!) and it seems that there is a breakdown in it at the moment.

    The issue may be that the contractor is acting in good faith and actually thinks these things were brought up and discussed. So the first thing James needs to do is rule out error on his side, i.e. talk to his team members–do they remember the topics the contractor has raised?

    The next step is to confirm each point and the wording of each action item during the meeting. I agree with Clare Lynch–the minutes should focus on topics, key points, and action items.

    Often the person taking minutes forgets that THEY are responsible for content. They should verify every topic and every action item. If they feel they missed something, they should stop the meeting to ensure they have clarity around what is being said and agreed to.

    The topics and action points should be summarized periodically throughout the meeting. At the end of the meeting there should be a “OK, so our topics were…. Regarding Widgets, we’ve agreed that…. For Thingies we will…. etc.”

    If this doesn’t resolve the issue, then it’s time to record the meetings. At this point, recording the meetings is required, and if the contractor is unwilling, then the relationship ends.

    Again, Ms. Lynch is correct–this is a very serious issue, because part of tracking the fulfillment of contractual obligations is through the minutes of meetings. If there is disagreement in the minutes of the meetings, then there is disagreement on fulfillment of the contract.

    Good luck, James.

  • Meeting notes are not a transcript. If the contractor asks occasionally for some additional information to be appended before the notes are distributed, and if the appended material is labeled as having been added after the fact, that may be okay.

    Overtly making recordings of the meetings, however, puts all participants on notice that they won’t be able to indulge in revisionist history without a high potential for negative consequences. I would do it. I have done it.

  • Thanks, everyone, for your ideas for James.

    Alicia, thank you for starting the discussion. I agree with you about recording future meetings. I believe it’s essential.

    Clare, I agree that James must resist the contractor’s “attempts to rewrite history.” Like you, I would be curious to see James’s notes. One hopes they would contain only decisions, action items, and key points. It seems as though the key points area is where the apparent abuse lies. To avoid problems, the contractor needs to say something like this during the meeting: “I would like the meeting notes to reflect that I informed you about this personnel change” (because he just did). That may be the kind of statement James was referring to. As for your other good question, James did not mention anything about his manager.

    EL, thanks for mentioning the agenda. I am guessing that when the two teams meet, they do have one. However, the agenda is likely to include updates–that is, times when one team updates the other. That’s probably the agenda portion where the contractor is inserting things he apparently did not cover at the meeting.

    P, yes, recording should prevent a recurrence of the problem.

    John, I agree with you and Clare about the seriousness of the issue. And periodically summarizing will benefit everyone. When I take notes at a board meeting, I often stop the discussion to be sure I understand what has been agreed to–and that everyone else understands.

    Jim, you are right about meeting notes not being a transcript. I like your idea of inviting the contractor to append things to the meeting notes, labeling them clearly as follow-up information, not additions and corrections.

    Here are the suggestions I shared with James when I posted this blog the other night:

    1. Do not change the meeting notes as the contractor has insisted. You are responsible for the integrity of the notes, so you cannot make changes you know are not truthful. Instead, insist on having another meeting at which the contractor can bring up those topics, and you can all discuss them.

    2. From now on, audio record all the meetings. Inexpensive digital recorders make recording easy. You don’t need to do anything with the recordings, but you will have them if needed.

    3. At the end of each meeting, with everyone present, review aloud what you have recorded in your notes. Even though your notes will not be polished, they should be in a form that you can read back to the team. With everyone present, ask whether you missed anything significant. Or do this:

    4. At the end of each topic or slice of a topic, announce what you have recorded before the groups move on. For example, say, “For this topic, this is what I have recorded.” Then read the essential statements, the decisions, and any action items, giving everyone the option of clarifying what they meant or intended to say.

    Again, thank you all for sharing your terrific ideas with “James.” If he replies in an email to me (as I hope he will), I will update you.


  • hi wife and I attended a meeting..informally so we thought…we were not aware it would be minuted,and to cut a long story short important issues were omitted .When we attended a follow up meeting we were told certain info was not discussed…when in fact it was…We were both very unhappy and have investigated further but feel like we are hitting a brick wall….our next step is we are going to request these minutes…for our records,but we wish to see what has and has not been included..Are we within our rights to do this?

  • Dean, I do not understand enough about the situation to answer your question. Perhaps you can talk with someone who knows about the group in charge of the meetings and who understands the reason for the meetings.

    I would guess you have the right to ask. I don’t know whether the group has the responsibility to comply.


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