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Effective Evaluations 

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Further than Figures

Effective Evaluations

Tips for conducting performance evaluations.


In some circles, if you mention the words "written performance evaluation," you're likely to elicit a collective groan. At companies and organizations across the country, when the dreaded deadline looms, most managers and supervisors look forward to the task with about as much enthusiasm as a cat looks forward to a bath. "It's not that we don't consider it important," they'll tell you, "it's just that there are so many to do, I don't have enough time, and I don't really know what to say." If that refrain sounds familiar, fret not, this column should help. You'll not only get some tips on how to survive this year's performance evaluations, but also some ideas on how to make next year's process easier.

First, let's look at how to get through this year's cycle. Your present approach to performance evaluations is likely somewhere between two extremes. At one end, you've been having ongoing, constructive, and useful performance discussions with your employees all year, and this process is merely the formality of "writing it up." At the other extreme, this is the big event — the definitive performance discussion meeting and the written document.

Of course, the closer you are to the second scenario, the more likely you are to be teetering at the edge of a nervous breakdown as you read this! Yes, I know you've heard it before, but it bears repeating: despite the fact that ongoing performance discussions throughout the year take up time, they really do make the "write-up" portion of the process easier. In many ways, it's a classic example of pay now or pay later. Unfortunately, many managers take the pay later approach, and find that they have to pay interest.

To make your performance evaluation process both more efficient and effective, keep these four elements in mind.

Measure Against Standards

In order to conduct an effective performance evaluation, you must have standards, or benchmarks, to compare against. Ideally, these standards were established as goals, jointly with the employee, at the beginning of the year. If goals are pre-determined, then this step is relatively easy: simply record actual performance against the identified targets. In many ways, it's a lot like comparing actual to budget, a task that most managers are familiar with. An easy way to jumpstart this process is to have the employee report his or her actual performance against the targets. That way, not only does the employee's document become a starting point for the discussion, but it also takes some of the pressure off you.

The process becomes a little more challenging if annual performance targets were never established. In this situation, your focus will shift to recording the employee's performance highlights from the past year. Again, get things going by having the employee prepare a list of what he or she thinks are the performance accomplishments from the past year. Use that document as a starting point for your discussion with the employee.

Rate Objectively

While this may sound obvious, as a manager, you should be aware that when it comes to performance evaluations, there are some common traps to watch for and diligently avoid.

The halo effect is the tendency of a manager to evaluate a person, either negatively or positively, on all characteristics, based on experience or knowledge of only one dimension. For example, if Jennifer's presentation skills are so strong that even the division's vice-president commented on it, there may be a tendency to rate her interpersonal skills highly as well, even if there is evidence to the contrary. Similarly, if one of Seema's biggest accounts moved their business over to the competition, there may be a tendency to rate Seema's overall account management skills as poor, even though she was able to bring in several smaller new accounts into the company.

A second trap is the leniency tendency. In this scenario, you may be predisposed to evaluate all your employees as outstanding, and thus give inflated ratings rather than true assessments of performance. This is most likely to happen when performance targets are not set at the beginning of the year. For example, if you did not set annual performance goals with your employee Roger, it is very likely that his list of performance accomplishments will contain many positive highlights, and very few, if any, performance disappointments. As a result, you are likely to view his skills as exceptional.

When this starts to occur repeatedly across a group of people, you are probably leaning towards leniency. While Roger could be a high-performing employee, it is extremely unlikely that your entire team consists of 100 per cent star performers.

The strictness tendency is the opposite of the leniency tendency. Here, the bias is toward rating all employees at the low end of the scale and, often, a propensity to be overly demanding and critical. Similar to the situation above, it is likely that you may have a poorly performing employee, and even several average performers, but improbable that you have a team of nothing but poor to average performers. If that happens, it is worthwhile asking yourself if you have fallen into the strictness tendency trap.

Use Significant Examples

For a performance review to be meaningful to an employee, it should provide specific examples of both positive and negative performance. For example, rather than saying "Emily is helpful to her team," offer instead, "Emily assisted the team in developing the five-year strategic plan by researching marketplace and competitive trends."

Instead of "Greg needs to improve his customer service skills," try, "Greg should focus on returning telephone calls within the agreed-to service level of 24 hours."

Specific examples allow the employee to act on the feedback. When you offer general examples, it not only creates a greater potential for disagreement, it does not give the employee sufficient information to either continue or change the behaviour.

Plan for the Meeting

The meeting is one of the most important elements of the performance evaluation process. You can make it more effective by keeping the following guidelines in mind.

  • Allow ample time for the discussion and plan to avoid interruptions. Despite the fact you may be rushed for time, it does neither you nor your employee any good to rush through the process.
  • Concentrate on facts and keep the discussion performance-oriented rather than person-oriented. For example, you will be more successful if instead of saying "Stan, you are consistently late," you say, "Stan, when you're late, it causes the following issues in the team."
  • Encourage your employee to talk, and listen carefully. The performance discussion should be a two-way dialogue, not a one-way speech.
  • Be future-focused. If you say "Stan, you are consistently late," you run the risk of getting bogged down in every excuse for each time that Stan was late. Rather, you will have more success if you focus on, "What can we do to prevent this in the future?"
  • Emphasize future development. The best performance evaluations are springboards for harnessing the full potential of employees. Analyze performance, develop strategies for strengthening those areas in need of improvement, develop a goal-oriented plan jointly with the employee, establish and check in on follow-up plans, and use positive reinforcement to motivate.
  • Finally, be sure to end the discussion on a positive and supportive basis.
Streamline the Process

Here are three specific ideas to make the process easier:

  1. Take time at the beginning of the year to set goals with each employee.
  2. Keep ongoing notes of successes achieved and challenges faced by the employee. That way, at the end of the year, you don't have to rack your brain to try and remember what happened 10 months ago.
  3. Schedule periodic meetings to discuss performance against targets and offer coaching and general feedback.

Feedback for specific events should be given within 24 hours of the event's occurrence. Meeting four times a year is ideal, but even twice a year is better than saving it all for the once-a-year event.

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