The Performance Appraisal Problem

Why is the performance evaluation process so painful and difficult to accomplish?  In many small and midsize companies, they are viewed as such a nuisance, that the process in place is often ignored or implemented only sporadically.  Of course, this means there is no accountability for the managers who fail to complete the assignment.  Like any other viable organization system or process, it has move from the top-down, or it’s not likely to go anywhere.  This leaves HR begging and pleading with managers to get their jobs done.


We’ve heard all the excuses: the performance evaluations are time-consuming; they can get you into trouble if written poorly; feedback should occur more than once per year; they are biased anyway; the managers will fudge the appraisal to get the pay increase they want for the employee; the employees don’t care, they just want to know what their increase will be.


All of these excuses deserve to be addressed in a sound performance appraisal process, but here is the bottom line: Employees don’t know where they stand until you tell them, and tell them specifically.  The wrong time to tell them is when it’s time to make an adverse employment decision.  Not having written performance evaluations that point out specific strengths and deficits will leave you open to claims of discrimination, favoritism and unfairness.


Here is an example.  An unskilled laborer with many years of seniority is laid off by her company during a slow period.  She had never received a performance evaluation by the previous plant manager, and the current plant manager rated her as a good employee.  In fact, she was a stable employee with good attendance who did high quality work on intricate assembly jobs.  The problem was her productivity.  She could not be put on productions lines that were paced by machines or even other people.  She simply couldn’t keep up.  No one ever told her this.  They just stopped putting her on these types of jobs and only used her for work where her detail orientation made her excel.  She was chosen for the lay off because of her lack of versatility and productivity. 


When she filed for age discrimination she said – and believed – she was the best employee in the plant.  She said the previous plant manager had thought so.  This wasn’t true, but there was no documentation to the contrary.  She did not believe she could not keep up with other workers, as no one had ever told her this was the reason she was moved from certain jobs.  She walked away with decent settlement. 


The point is both poorly executed performance evaluations that don’t adequately differentiate between the good, the mediocre, the excellent and the poor employees will get you into trouble.  However, not having any written evaluations won’t protect you either – it just means the employees can say what they want, and there is no record to disprove their claims.


It’s also difficult and confusing for an employee with a long tenure at a company to get a new boss and suddenly discover they can’t do anything right.  They think they have been saddled with an unreasonable boss.  The fact is, they may have just been saddled with an honest boss who isn’t overlooking their deficits, as was done previously.


All employees do want feedback, and they want it regularly, not just once per year.  There are three things they want to know: (1) What is my job? (2) How am I doing? (3) Does anybody care?  What’s the point of being really good at something that the organization doesn’t value, and lacking in an area where the organization needs improvement?  What’s the point of doing a good job at all if no one is paying attention?


Many, many years ago, my father worked for a very big company as a staff accountant.  He felt that his career was going nowhere, and he was frustrated.  With a wife and two kids at home and no other prospects lined up, he tendered his resignation.  That day, a senior manager (I don’t know the actual title) called him to his office, walked around his desk to shake my father’s hand, and called my father by his name.  The manager made no promises to my father that day.  He merely expressed his interest in seeing my father continue to do good work for the company.  My father’s direct supervisor was livid that my father had gone over his head.  My father’s reply? “You know my name now.  Did you know it before?”  My father retired from that big company after more than 37 years.  THAT is the power of a performance evaluation.


So, why do we have to go through the annual ritual of filling out the forms and have the face-to-face meetings when we should be giving recognition to employees all along?  Because it is the only way to ensure that you are being completely candid.  Because it is the only way to be sure the employee does know what the manager expects and how he or she is meeting those expectations.  Because the only other way the employee learns that they need improvement is when the news comes in the form of a reprimand, and that is de-motivating.  Because the process gives the employee a chance to dialogue with the manager about what he/she needs and expects from the manager and the organization.  There are few other opportunities for an employee to get this kind of dialogue with the manager, especially the manager who is too busy to do performance evaluations.  That is the manager that is too busy fighting fires to manage.


So how do we get these done and done right?  The answer will always be in the process.  There are two things that are critical.  The first is to determine what behaviors you want to reinforce and embed these into the evaluation form.  Let’s take the example of a production employee.  The National Safety Council[1] defines production as:


Production is the amount of quality product or services that can be safely produced in a company over a period of an hour, day, week, month or year.


Notice this definition includes quality, safety and amount.  If you take any of these three out of the equation, you don’t have true production.  Therefore, your appraisal form must include all three elements as areas for evaluation.  I think we all know what happened in the mortgage lending industry when employees were rated only on how many mortgages they wrote, without regard for the quality of loans or the mortgagees.


The second thing you need to determine is how to make the process doable for the managers.  For this you need their input.  Therefore, you should not try to design the perfect employee appraisal system on your own.  You need to know what the company values and wants to reward and reinforce.  You also need to know what support the managers are going to need through this process.  If you ask them what they want and give it to them, you are more likely to be successful in your efforts.  For instance, my managers wanted me to meet with them to do two or three evaluations per day.  In other words, they don’t want a set of blank forms in their inbox that are going to get lost in their paper piles. If approach the process this way, I will fail.  If I schedule time with them to spur on the process, I increase my chances of being successful in ultimately getting back completed, signed and dated evaluations that will add value to the management function.


Ultimately, that is what we are here to do:  add value to the process.


[1] Dennis, Leslie E. and Onion, Meredith L., Out In Front: Effective Supervision in the Workplace, National Safety Council 1990.


About stacifoss

I am an HR professional, runner, beauty consultant and mother who is interested in healthy living, psychology, business, education, politics, parenting, community involvement and loves to write!
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