Part II: Evolving out of the Evaluation

A few weeks ago, I tried to talk you out of clinging to your traditional employee performance evaluation. I suggested you scrap your company’s formal, stress-inducing, time-consuming, and ineffective “1-5” annual review in favor of a ongoing, interactive performance management system.   I proposed that by involving employees in the goal-setting process, offering immediate and rolling feedback (and assistance with improvement), and having managers actively manage performance, your business was likely to enjoy improved performance and employee morale.

As I noted, however, I understand that old habits are hard to break.  There will be several pockets of Luddites out there who, for various reasons, simply cannot release the notion that it’s necessary to subject supervisors and employees to the annual crucible of a formal performance review.   It’s the way things have always been done, change is hard and difficult to explain, and some of you would rather persist with the status quo than venture into unfamiliar performance management territory.

This article is for you.  If you are determined to stick with your traditional employee performance evaluation, please consider the following suggestions.  I’m still hopeful you come around to a new way of thinking, but until your epiphany, you can at least make your evaluation process less dreadful.

An evaluation is a management tool (with benefits to the employee)

As with other employment-related documentation (handbooks, policies, disciplinary write-ups, etc.), evaluations should be prepared from a defensive perspective.  In other words, a written employee will be evidence when employment-litigation erupts – it’s simply a matter whether it will be evidence for (i) the disgruntled employee prosecuting his wrongful termination or (ii) the incredulous company defending the suit.   Don’t include anything on the evaluation form that you don’t want read to the jury.

Keep in mind also that the foremost purposes of the evaluation are setting and maintaining employee expectations so that you get the work you need done, done.  Very few employees knowingly disappoint their boss, so use the evaluation as a way to explicitly communicate to each employee the areas in which they are meeting your expectations and the areas in which they are not.  For the latter, be sure to offer concrete ideas for how to improve, as well as specific times that you’ll be available for assistance and follow-up.  When you set forth for folks what you’d like to see done and help them accomplish that task, the more likely you are, as an employer, to be satisfied.

Thoughtfully prepared performance evaluations, moreover, can create for a business a valuable skills inventory and can identify training needs and other areas for organizational improvement, especially when examined for historical and company-wide trends.  Hastily completed and haphazardly maintained performance reviews, on the other hand, are unlikely to offer any overarching perspective.  Evaluations, moreover, that don’t accurately reflect actual employee performance create havoc if the employer shortly thereafter takes employment action that is inconsistent with the evaluation – few things are more difficult for an employer to explain to a jury than why it fired the plaintiff for poor performance within months of a “meets expectations” review.

Anything less than a thoughtful, honest performance review is a waste of time, if not worse, in the short and long run.

Start with effective form

Any evaluation form should be based upon the written job description for the position to be evaluated.  (If there is not a written job description, lets talk…).  The form should measure, most critically, the essential functions of the position, and identify whether the employee is satisfactorily completing these functions.    If the evaluation form also includes other tangential aspects of the position and the employee’s performance with respect to those incidentals, fine, but make sure to at least take measure of the big, important stuff.

Once the essential functions of a position have been identified, the standards by which performance is measured must be articulated.  Keep the standards as objective as possible using quantifiable metrics (sales numbers, units produced, calls answered, budgets met, etc.).  Some subjectivity is unavoidable, but recognize that subjectivity leads to disagreement – keeping things as concrete as possible tends to reduce tension and pushback.

I also recommend keeping evaluation criteria concise.  As with long-winded policies or complex procedures, supervisors are more likely to ignore protracted measuring standards.  Similarly, evaluation standards should be realistic, updated regularly, and tied to company values and objectives.  Unreachable, out-of-date, or inconsequential criteria make it less likely employees will take the evaluation and the process seriously.

Logistically, every evaluation form should set forth the date on which the evaluation was completed and the measuring period.  It should contain a “not observed” or “not applicable” option for evaluators without an opinion on particular criteria, as well as a space for a narrative explanation where necessary. (Supervisors should be encouraged, but not required, to offer narrative explanations – I’d rather see no explanation than a forced one).  Finally, every evaluation form should provide space for the employee to acknowledge receipt of the evaluation.   (To quickly answer the most common question I receive – no, the employee does not have to sign an evaluation (or disciplinary notice, write-up, etc.).  I recommend, however, that the employer have the employee, in one way or another, acknowledge receipt of the document, even if the employee is permitted to provide a rebuttal to the parts with which they disagree).

Prepare and present

Businesses should give their supervisors the resources necessary to attentively prepare their evaluations.  This includes clear instructions and training on how to evaluate subordinates, time in their schedules (during working hours) to complete the evaluations, and access to employees’ personnel records to ensure their feedback accurately reflects current, and is consistent with past, performance.  I also recommend companies encourage their managers to collaborate with other managers to verify and cross-check their evaluations, feedback, and goals.

On the form itself, effective supervisors strive to evaluate the specific criterion being measured, and not allow less favorable aspects of the performance to bleed into the areas in which the employee performs well.  Good managers avoid allowing one or two incidents (positive or negative) to unduly color the overall evaluation, and (as much as possible and where appropriate) set aside personality bias.  They balance comments about positive aspects of the job with feedback concerning areas in which improvement is needed, and strike a direct, objective, and respectful tone.   Successful managers recommend specific goals and methods for improvement and set realistic goals for subsequent evaluations.

Before presenting an evaluation to the employee, managers should consider having the employee complete a self-evaluation and/or prepare a list of questions to discuss during the meeting.  This will help focus the employee on the evaluation process and convey the seriousness of the information to be discussed.

I recommend that supervisors discuss good news first during the evaluation meeting, address all major issues as soon as possible, and avoid comparisons (positive or negative) with other employees.  It is critical that the manager welcome feedback from the employee and empathize with the employee’s perspective, but at the same time hold their ground concerning the evaluation’s results.   Supervisors should keep any notes from the evaluation meeting on a separate sheet of paper, not the evaluation itself, and seek to end the meeting on a positive, encouraging note.

I encourage managers after the interview to prepare a quick memo to the file concerning the tone of the meeting and to follow-up regularly with the employee on the performance areas discussed during the process.  The routine follow-up will not only help performance, it will serve to reinforce the manager’s expectations and make subsequent reviews more comfortable.

Redux: Managing managing performance is hard work

Although many companies and managers continue to rely upon traditional employment evaluation programs because they’re intimidated by the prospect of an ongoing performance tools and techniques, the annual performance review should not be taken lightly.   Upper management should communicate to the frontline supervisors the importance of the process by example, by providing the necessary training and resources, and through appropriate incentives, and should evaluate supervisors on their ability to effectively review, coach, and develop their subordinates.

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Author: Todd Stanton

Todd is the founder of Stanton Law, LLC in Atlanta, GA, where he is focused on helping companies avert employment-related issues without sacrificing managerial efficiency. “I take great pride in being able to provide counsel to employers and help them achieve practical solutions to what are often very personal, and potentially expensive, problems. I feel very lucky to be where I am right now, doing work I believe in. I really have a pretty good gig.” View all posts by Todd Stanton →

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