The last Vantage Point post outlined why I think employee performance appraisal systems are often ineffective, and even counterproductive. How do we make them better? At one extreme, some advocate the total abolition of formal evaluations as the solution; at the other end there are elaborate systems that are very complex and require a large commitment of time and resources. I believe a relatively simple, well designed appraisal system can and should be an effective part of achieving organizational and employee goals, such as increasing the quality of public service and the intrinsic, motivating reward of a job well done. But, how can this be done and avoid the pitfalls and flawed assumptions I wrote about in the last post? The biggest thing to do is to have a system that is primarily focused on individual staff members, applying situational leadership principles. What components does such a system have?
First, we must break free of thinking that performance appraisals are once a year events. Rather, there should be ongoing, regular coaching sessions with staff about performance. These discussions clarify expectations, focus on behavior and the status of work, and reset short-term goals. Sometimes these relatively informal chats are quite brief and restricted to a single topic, and at other times they can be formally scheduled (such as at the time of significant work events, or a mandatory midyear review). A key is to ensure there truly is a two-way exchange. In addition, supervisors must promptly praise employees when they do well, and just as importantly, when they do not (does anyone remember the “One Minute Manager” book? Its message is still valid) – just remember the rule to praise in public, but criticize in private, taking into account how the individual staff person wants such praise to be publicized (situational leadership in practice; I’ve had introverts who would think they were being punished if I praised them in a staff meeting!). Supervisors should also document key information from informal interactions in written notes to provide information for later use.
Supplementing the ongoing coaching sessions, at least once a year (and more often for developmental stage staff members) a formal, written evaluation is appropriate. This is the time when a comprehensive dialog occurs at a scheduled meeting, building on the series of informal discussions held throughout the year. This meeting should include:
- A review of the job description to ensure that it correctly reflects the work being performed. If not, follow up and revise the description.
- A review of the time period covered by the appraisal, focusing on the employee’s behaviors and results achieved in reaching job goals. This is a good time to make sure that the performance measures related to the job duties are accurate, directly related to the competencies of the job, and that both persons understand them. It is important to recognize that performance evaluation is rarely based entirely on objective, easily measurable criteria – especially in the courts where intellectual, knowledge-based work is predominant. Subjective observations, based on experience, are also relevant – just make sure they are directly related to the job duties and the employee’s behaviors in achieving goals for those duties.
- Use open-ended questions by the supervisor to help the employee discuss how things are going. For instance:
- Has the past year been better or worse for you than before?
- What do you consider to be your best accomplishments?
- In what areas would you like to improve? How can we work together to make that happen?
- What parts of your job are the most/least interesting or challenging?
- A focus on the employee’s strengths and how to leverage them better for the employee and the organization.
- Perhaps the most important part of the meeting comes next. Using the past as a base, discuss and set work goals for the future. What do the supervisor and the employee want to accomplish? Are new responsibilities in order? What training is needed? What can the supervisor do better to help the employee improve? Where do they see the employee in the organization in the future? And so on…
This appraisal meeting should cover familiar territory to the employee, assuming the ongoing informal coaching discussions described above have been held. In other words, there normally should not be any surprises, but at times this cannot be avoided if something new comes up or the employee is in denial and has not heeded prior advice. The meeting should not result in an immediate completion and signing of a formal appraisal form or document – the supervisor and employee need time to digest everything before reducing the results of such an important event to writing. In fact, a huge mistake some systems and supervisors make is to draft an appraisal form before the meeting and hand it to the employee as a basis for discussion. From the employee’s perspective, the appraisal appears to be a “done deal” and this shuts down the kind of open dialog you want. It is much better for the supervisor and employee to prepare for the meeting and bring only their notes and a blank appraisal form to guide the discussion. I recommend that organizations also provide optional self-evaluation forms for employees to use to help them prepare for the appraisal meeting.
After a short period of time (a few days), the supervisor should fill out a draft appraisal form. This should include not only specific ratings of the goal achievements, but also comments on specific items and an overall summary. Then, before sharing the draft with the employee, it is highly recommended to have another management person who is familiar with the work group (typically, the supervisor’s manager) review the appraisal to provide feedback to the supervisor about the accuracy of the evaluation and consistency with the appraisals of similarly situated employees. The latter is an example of calibration, where an organization’s supervisors meet to discuss prospective evaluations of staff to compare how each is applying performance standards and that consistent and fair ratings are being applied – I highly recommend this practice. Once this quick review step is done and any revisions are made, the supervisor next shares the draft form with the employee. The employee is given the opportunity to review the draft and submit his or her own comments for the written record (which automatically should be included). In some instances, the employee may want to have a further discussion about any part of the appraisal, and this should be encouraged. After the supervisor and employee are done with this process and hopefully reconcile any differences, they both sign the form (it is a good practice to have the form note that the employee’s signature does not necessarily indicate agreement and only acknowledges review and receipt of the completed document) and it is placed in the employee’s personnel folder.
All of the above was implemented in my last position, and worked very well. If anyone is interested in the details (like policy and forms), I am happy to share them.
You may notice that I have not mentioned performance rating scales! This critical part of the system deserves its own discussion, which I will cover, along with other issues, in the next blog post. As a sneak preview, I advocate a “pass-fail,” two-factor rating scale, contrary to the vast majority of appraisal systems.
Meanwhile, comments about these first two posts on performance appraisals are encouraged. I would very much appreciate the sharing of your experiences and whether you agree or not with what I have written. If you don’t want to submit comments that may appear publicly on this site, send them to me at email@example.com and I promise to keep them confidential. As always, if you want to be notified of future posts, just fill in your e-mail below. Thanks!