Why and How to Have Effective Performance Evaluations

Before long the holidays will be upon us—we will be consumed with turkeys, trees, latkes, candles, presents, and family. Meanwhile, sitting, languishing in our email or in our office in-boxes will be performance evaluations we were supposed to have completed on other employees before the first bite of cranberry sauce. Performance evaluations are hard—No question and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. We don’t like conflict; we don’t want to tell people they are not meeting expectations; we want people to like us!

So, why, you ask, should you spend time and effort on those performance evaluations or even, gulp, give negative feedback? I have three answers for you:

1) If you don’t tell your employees how they can do their jobs better, how do you expect your business to improve? We all can improve. If you ever doubt it, ask your children – they will be brutally honest about your faults. (My eight-year-old told me last week, after I put on a new pair of red pants that I looked like a candy cane.) In today’s business environment, being ok isn’t good enough. For businesses to survive, we have to be searching constantly to improve our products, our services, and our customer or client experiences. Customers want everything better, faster and cheaper. For your employees to help grow your business, they need feedback.

2) In relation to number 1 above, effective performance evaluations can actually improve employee morale. If you take no more than 2 minutes to complete the reviews on your employees, your employees can tell. The message you are sending is that you could not be bothered to spend the time to help the person improve. You didn’t give their performance enough thought to do more than check a box or write a number. Over time, the message that is ultimately sent is “You don’t matter enough to this organization for me to waste my time telling you how to get to the next level.” Likely, if confronted about this message, you would say that you don’t intend this to be the message at all; but, employers send messages to their employees based on what they neglect and if you neglect your employees’ performance evaluations, you are neglecting their careers. Employees who feel their employers are interested in them are more likely to be interested in their jobs.

3) Performance reviews can lead to liability. If the first two reasons weren’t enough to put down your fork and spend some time on performance reviews, then number 3 should be—a hastily prepared performance review can lead to liability. As you’ve likely heard or read from me before, employees are more likely to bring a lawsuit when they perceive unfairness. I cannot count the number of calls I have received from employers who wanted to terminate a “chronic poor performer” who had received “outstanding” performance reviews for the last 5 years. That employee is likely to perceive unfairness when she is terminated due to her “poor performance.” Consider if an employer has to do a reduction in force – if the paperwork shows that the employer terminated employees in a protected group who had “outstanding” reviews and kept employees in non-protected groups with lesser ratings, the employer has a problem. Employers can’t wait until a reduction in force to critically assess their employees. They need to be doing it on a regular basis so that the documents match the termination reasons. When the reasons and the papers do not match, the perception of unfairness increases. The possibility of a lawsuit and the difficulty in defending one do as well.

So, how do you effectively evaluate employees? Employers have many methods and the best vary depending on the size of the organization and its culture. However, the following are five universal tips for effective performance evaluations:

1. Be Honest. I would rather a client have no performance evaluations than dishonest ones—they do no good for the employer or the employee.

2. Be Constructive, not mean. Do not just point out a performance problem, but offer the preferred behavior.

3. Do not bring up or rely on protected categories or employer-made diagnoses. Do not suggest that an employee is not performing well due to a perceived emotional or intellectual problem. Focus on the performance, not your desire to play armchair psychologist.

4. Set attainable goals. Tell your employees how they can improve and set specific attainable goals for measurement throughout the year.

5. Follow-up on those goals before next year. Don’t wait a whole year to tell employees how they are doing. A poor performance evaluation should never be a surprise. Employees who are not performing to expectations should be aware before December.

Performance evaluations can be effective tools in improving your business and your workforce. Showing your employees that you care about their success and want them to be the best performers possible is good for them and for you. So when you pull up those performance reviews this year, don’t view them as a practice in conflict avoidance, but instead as another opportunity to best the competition!

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