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Monday, November 12, 2007

conducting strong performance evaluations

I'm embarrassed to admit that this is the first year I'm giving our managers detailed training on how to conduct good performance reviews. In the past, I've sent them forms to use and a few words of encouragement, and not much else. In retrospect, this was a crazy plan, since most people haven't done many of these in their careers and people have different ideas about how to go about them.

So this year I'm doing a group training for managers. In addition to talking about the specifics of our forms, especially the nuances of our rating categories, I'm also going to cover the following:

1. Why do we do performance appraisals when our goal is to be giving feedback on a regular, ongoing basis through the year? Answer: To provide a substantive, overall assessment of employees' performance and ensure the manager and employee are on the same page; to provide suggestions for growth and improvement, helping fair performers become good and good performers become great; to provide an opportunity to delegate more responsibility to the employee; to find out how the employee is doing internally – happy, thinking of leaving in the next year, wanting more responsibility, etc.; and in the case of poor performers, to send (additional) clear messages about needed improvements and to supplement documentation in the event termination becomes necessary.

2. How long should a manager expect to spend on the process? Answer: Plan to allow at least an hour to write each appraisal, if not more, and allow another hour to meet with each employee individually. And no matter how tempting procrastination may be, don't put it off, since it sends a terrible message to the employee when their evaluation is delayed and delayed.

3. Be specific and use examples to illustrate your points, both when praising and when identifying areas for improvement. For instance, you could say "you did a great job with the new inventory system," but it's more effective to say "your revamping of the inventory system has saved the company money and I've heard several people comment about how much easier you've made it to find the supplies they need."

4. Be honest and direct about problem areas. If you have any complaints/concerns, they must be included. Potentially uncomfortable, yes, but it's also your obligation as a manager. (And if you ever find yourself needing to defend a firing in court, you'll be in real trouble if the plaintiff's performance reviews were misleadingly positive.)

5. Be specific about what can be done to improve. Note that that says "can be done," not "needs to be done." That's because even if someone is doing a good job, you should still take the opportunity to tell them how they could to move from good to great.

And be sure to be specific here too. Don't just say "work faster" when you could say "process all checks within three days and respond to customer emails within two days."

6. Pay attention to the overall picture you're painting. I've seen managers write bizarrely lukewarm evaluations for employees I know they love and would devastated to lose. Likewise, if the employee is a mess and needs to make major improvements, make sure that comes through in the overall message. Make sure that the sum of the parts adds up to the correct whole.

7. What if the employee has struggled with something all year but recently improved? What if he or she has done well all year but recently had a major error? Answer: Resist the temptation to be overly influenced by recent events; the evaluation is (in most cases) for the whole year, not just the last few months. That said, if someone has struggled all year but improved recently, be sure to note that so the person doesn't feel his or her efforts are unnoticed.

8. Consider getting feedback (in confidence) from others who work closely with the employee. You may find out aspects of the person's performance, both good and bad, that you didn't know about.

Anyone want to add to this list? I'd welcome more ideas.


tim said...

I'd like to emphasise the last sentence in the second point - don't delay performance reviews! It really does make employees feel less valuable. I work in a company of three - two directors (one senior and one junior) and me, a junior engineer. I've been here a little over two years, and both of my annual reviews have been delayed by as much as two months. The impression I got, regardless of the apologies and excuses, was that I simply wasn't a priority to them - a view I find unacceptable in such a small company. Now, due to changes in the market and a reluctance to provide me with necessary training, a dramatically decreased workload has led me to begin searching for a new position. This isn't what anyone in the company has been hoping for, but with these past instances of disregard and no prospects of change, it's time to go... Tim.

Oh, and cheers for putting up such a good blog - I'm a bit of a lurker. It's always helpful to gain some insight into the thought processes of others.

Anonymous said...

The biggest challenge I see in peformance reviews is in distinguishing levels of performance. I am (un)fortunate to work with a 5 tier system and the distinction between Fully Successful and Excellent probably poses the most upset, for lack of a better word. It is not that a manager doesn't know who his or her Excellent performers are, they really have a hard to articulating the distinction well. What makes it even more difficult, is it is a distinction many employees don't want to hear. How come "Fully Successful" gets such a bad rap?:)

Anonymous said...

First of all I think this was an excellent blog. Performance evaluations are such a hot topic right now, with the focus in the workforce today being on succession planning. Not only is it important to give accurate and timely reviews for the employees sake, but this can help in future planning for the entire organization. There are now whole software systems dedicated to this process. It can make the process of evaluations smoother, more accurate, timely, and efficient. I especially, agree with number 8. It is of critical importance to get the opinion of peers and those who work in close proximity with the person being evaluated. Who else would know better?!

Happy Employee said...

Thank you for this post! I've been trying to read a book about Performance Appraisals... the info's good, but it's not nice to read. So you've just saved me a lot of time and pain ;-)

All managers I know will tell you that their employees are very important to them. But when they get the PerfApp form from HR, most of them will think "Oh no, more paper and I hate admin."
But a small company like yours also has its advantages. I don't know your situation, but you might say to your boss "hey, why don't we have lunch together next week? And we could talk about how I'm doing and where I can still get better."
(PS: sinfest rules!)

Anonymous said...

Just curious are your managers evaluated by their direct reports as well?

What advice do you have for "managing up" in a situation like this.

(PS: Last time I started reviewing my manager, the whole processes was cut short and the meeting was never rescheduled - as I result I never recieved MY evaluation.)

Anonymous said...

When I did research on top performing supervisors, we found that they did three things significantly different from their peers. First, they saw "performance evaluation" as something you do every day with the people who work for you. Second, their annual review sessions were significantly longer than their peers'. Peer sessions averaged less than ten minutes. Top supervisors averaged 32 minutes. Third, top supervisors used the time to talk mostly about the future compared to their peers who primarily reviewed what was on the form.

I suggest to supervisors I train that if either you or your subordinate are surprised by anything in the annual review meeting, you have failed as a supervisor.

Anonymous said...

Your #1 answer that states "to provide suggestions for growth and improvement, helping fair performers become good and good performers become great" is right on, but would be considerably more helpful for the employee to have an actual professional growth plan with timelines of milestones and deliverables. With such a plan, it would ultimately be easier for the manager to (1)give the performance review by assessing if the milestones and deliverables were met, (2) provide evidence for ridding the company of poor performers, (3) give the employee a clear understanding of what is expected and how to get ahead, and (4) increase efficiency.

Anonymous said...

From the perspective of someone who was asked to provide feedback for an individual's performance review ... I would like to see some folo-up from the supervisor conducting the review after it's been completed.

Particularly in the case if constructive criticism was provided on how to improve the employee's performance - and to provide a sense of "yes, I take this concern seriously" in addressing it directly with the employee in the context of the review.

Anonymous said...

I am a little late with this blog/comment, but I would have to agree with Tim.

My manager has had plenty of time to make sure my reviews are done in a timely fashion. I've been with my current company for almost 4 years and every year it's the same excuses; e.g.; I promise next year it will be on time. However, I STILL find myself 3 to 5 months beyond my anniversary date before I finally get my performance review.

What irks me the most is my manager doesn't set a "standard". Countless times I've been asked to "do whatever it takes to get the job done". Meaning make yourself available outside business hours. Doesn't this same logic apply to yearly performance reviews; "do whatever it takes?

In my personal opinion there is never an excuse for a delayed YEARLY performance review. It's not good to delay reviews simply based on employee morale.