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.

{ 12 comments… read them below }

  1. tim

    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.

  2. Lisa

    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?:)

  3. Joan Woodbrey

    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?!

  4. The Happy Employee

    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 ;-)

    @Tim
    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!)

  5. Anonymous

    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.)

  6. Wally Bock

    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.

  7. Erin

    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.

  8. Anonymous

    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.

  9. Anonymous

    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.

  10. Anon

    I have a concern/question about the evaluation process that maybe could be cleared up by someone here? This is LONG, so please forgive me – I just feel you have to have all of the information to make a clear determination of the answer to my question.

    Here is my question (w/details of situation following): Why was I in HR – was this a “write up” on ME? Is this something that will be used against me later in my PE?

    I recently started a new job that has 3 other co-workers also in the same position as I was starting – we would be working together closely every day (and I even share a small office w/one of them). On my 2nd day on the job I was yelled at by an HR person who had been left holding the bag of “training” me while everyone else was out on vacation – I was horrified to be talked to this way by someone in that position and did not address it w/them, instead I quietly sat at the desk they had put me at and cried, finishing my “training” work until it was time to go home. The start of the next week sent me out of town for further training & one of the other co-workers was present… she bullied me & tortured me w/questions and “recommendations” all the way to our destination. When we were done w/training, it didn’t stop, she continued on & on… I was new here – and terribly upset by this unprovoked treatment by these people – thinking, “What did I do wrong?”. I mentioned it to the co-worker in the office I shared because I felt maybe he could give me some insight on why things seemed to be tilting in this fashion… he said I needed to tell our boss. So I did. I told her about the HR person and the co-worker. Then, about 2 weeks ago I get a call up to HR wanting to “discuss” the co-worker incidents, but NOT the HR incident… the HR rep hosting this meeting was in fact THE HR person who had treated me so poorly at the start of my employment. The co-worker who had bullied me had obviously been told by the office space sharing co-worker my concerns and she came to me and sincerely apologized (I don’t believe I trust the sincerity of that for a second.), and I agreed we would, “wipe the slate and start over”. This occurred before the HR meeting, so I felt the “issue” was over, done, resolved. Now, I am sitting across from the person who started my entire feeling of “being in the wrong place”. I told my boss as well as the HR rep that I felt it was a conflict of ethics to have her perform any duty to this meeting since she was culpable for performing the same behavior w/out trying to resolve the issue w/me. I said that I felt we needed to clear up the HR behavior before we could address anyone else at this meeting.

    I was “reminded” that I am the one on probation (being a new hire) – and that they just “want to make sure things are going smoothly for me” – This sounds like a veiled threat to me to keep my mouth shut and not rock the boat when I am bullied or mistreated… am I wrong there??? (yes, I know, that is another question… but I had to ask, and I would LOVE an answer).

    My boss also told me in this same meeting to be very careful who I talk to, who I trust. Now I feel like I cannot talk to ANY of my co-workers EVER about ANYTHING, because they could ALL be rogues. Jeez… Just feel very “out of the loop”… thanks.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Honestly, it sounds like you’re being overly sensitive here. Giving you questions and recommendations isn’t “bullying.”

      It sounds like the reminder that you’re a new hire was telling you that you’re causing a lot of problems that most employers don’t want to deal with. Yes, the HR person was in the wrong — but you’re probably more in the wrong in the way you’re handling this, and the way you’re handling this isn’t doing you in favors.

      ” felt it was a conflict of ethics to have her perform any duty to this meeting since she was culpable for performing the same behavior w/out trying to resolve the issue w/me. I said that I felt we needed to clear up the HR behavior before we could address anyone else at this meeting.”

      That kind of thing is really not going to help you here. I’d strongly suggest that you drop it and move on and focus on showing that you can do the work well. Don’t complain about interpersonal stuff anymore; you need to have a thicker skin.

      1. Anon

        Sorry –
        I didn’t explain the questions or “recommendations” (I put them in quotes to show they were NOT recommendations, but ORDERS). The very personal questions were related to a (personal) HIPAA protected file she had accessed and read of mine on our system – the “recommendations” were to pretty much allow her to do and say whatever she wants or she would get me fired, period (this was endured in a forced 2.5 hour car ride w/her). She said she had gotten 4 people before me fired b/c they complained she cussed at them… now… that being said; I didn’t tell much of that to HR – I had a “thick skin” about most of those things… it wasn’t until later when she realized I was going to DO MY WORK and KEEP MY JOB and not be intimidated by her that she got to work on me really good (too much “bullying” to detail here) – so yeah, I think I tried to let it go to begin with, to try to have a thicker skin and just do my job. I can’t explain what I do professionally (not in a public forum, sorry) – and how I have to work w/these people or you might have some clarity on how this all is REALLY bad – but I understand your perspective and respect your advice.
        I didn’t CHOOSE to have an “interpersonal” issue with anyone, I just wanted to do my job (and do it well)… but someone was very threatened by my being in that position and was bent on making me either want to leave or getting me fired from the start… and who knows, maybe she will yet, but I highly doubt it.
        As for the “new hire”, “lot’s of problems”, “HR being in the wrong” comments… well, I cannot imagine for one minute that someone slamming their hands down on a table 4 inches from my folded hands, and bending down to scream in my face is EVER acceptable, especially an HR person to a new hire on their 2nd day on the job. It was NOT my fault she was stressed out.
        Do I understand your response to say it is something people should potentially “expect and/or accept” as OK behavior from co-workers? By gaining a thicker skin, I can accept people lacking in proper professional & ethical behavior? Just let it slide… so next time I can let it slide again… and then next time… hmmm Sounds like a welcome mat in the making. That to complain about it or expect it to be resolved is “causing a lot of problems”? Really? I appreciate your perspective, honestly – and thank you for your response, but I wonder if more information alters your answer, or does it remain the same?

        ***I also want to add, that this is a “resolved” issue – it’s been “dropped”, as I said, I met w/HR, things were handled.
        I got on w/things, I do my job 100% and then some, I work more than anyone in my field there – because I love what I do and I love my clients. I merely wanted to know if I was in HR to get a write-up or if that was going to hurt my PE, which I highly doubt b/c I go above & beyond. (I just don’t want to get “beat up” on my job – in my field, it’s NOT allowable.) Thanks –

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