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Are You Flunking Performance Evaluations 101?

As HR professionals, you might sometimes find it’s easy to take parts of your job for granted — completing I-9 forms, signing employees up for health insurance, and overseeing annual performance evaluations.

Unlike routine paperwork, however, performance evaluations are an important part of effective management and can be critical in defending against employment litigation. And if you aren’t willing to take the evaluation process seriously, how can you expect your employees to? Here’s a quick tutorial to help you pass this test of your management savvy.

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Do we even need evaluations?
Employers are certainly not legally required to complete performance evaluations. But evaluations are an effective tool to force employers to regularly address their expectations, issues and concerns about employee performance and growth opportunities, and needs like training and mentoring.

If an organization don’t conduct regularly scheduled performance reviews, it will likely get too busy with everyday business to focus on those issues.

As with anything, though, if you’re going to do them, do them right. In particular, keep these points in mind:

  • Performance evaluations should be conducted on a regular basis. At the very least, you should do them annually.
  • Your evaluations should be in writing and maintained in employees’ personnel files.
  • Performance appraisals should be truthful and objective.
  • Performance reviews should be conducted by HR staff or supervisors trained in proper evaluation procedures. (Let’s face it, some people are better at evaluations than others.)

HR Guide to Employment Law: A practical compliance reference manual covering 14 topics, including documentation issues such as performance evaluations

Where can we find the perfect evaluation form?
There’s no one-size-fits-all performance evaluation form. Employers will need to develop a format that’s tailored to their specific business and the types of employees they have. For instance, your assessment for hourly workers with a high-school diploma should be different from your evaluation for a company VP.

One type of evaluation format used by many employers involves numeric ratings, or scoring different elements of an employee’s performance on a scale of 1 to 10, for example. It’s a popular format because it’s fast and easy to complete — you just have to circle a few numbers. But the problem with numeric ratings is twofold.

First, different people have different concepts of scoring. Think of it as your easy-grading college professors compared to the hard-grading professors. Some supervisors will give all employees relatively high scores, while others will assign primarily lower scores.

That creates inconsistencies in your evaluation process regardless of an employee’s actual job performance depending on who’s conducting the evaluation.

The second problem is that a numerical system doesn’t provide any substantive feedback. It doesn’t explain what the employee is excelling at or what she’s doing wrong, it doesn’t make suggestions for improvement, and it doesn’t give specific examples of her performance that are being singled out for praise or criticism.

Don’t be afraid to scrap your numeric evaluation forms altogether. Instead, take time to identify your expectations for each class of employees and ask for a written explanation of their performance in each area.

It can be as simple as listing the employee’s primary duties and job requirements and asking for a written summary of his strengths and weaknesses in each category. Or you might want a combination of an evaluation of the employee’s ability to perform specific job duties along with a critique of more general qualities like promptness, attitude, creativity, and initiative.

Again, there’s no right or wrong form. You just want to create an evaluation system that provides a substantive assessment of employees’ performance and provides suggestions for growth and improvement.

Basic Training for Supervisors, easy-to-read guides for avoiding legal hazards, including performance evaluations

Is honesty really the best policy?
When it comes to performance evaluations, yes. We understand it’s difficult to address someone’s shortcomings, and nobody wants to upset or anger an employee. But the evaluation process is pointless if you aren’t honest in critiquing your employee’s strengths and weaknesses.

Not only will you fail as a manager by not addressing potential problems, but you’re also creating a liability nightmare if you ever have to defend a disciplinary or termination decision and your documentation contains glowing evaluations that never addressed the problems that supposedly led to your decision.

Performance evaluations aren’t a time to be nice; they’re an opportunity to be objective and truthful. Use your common sense when you address performance issues. Remember, your attempts to be funny or clever are likely to come back to bite you later.

A comment like “This employee is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot” might be funny (and perhaps true), but it just isn’t appropriate in a professional performance appraisal. You should also think about what your comments would look like if they were presented to a jury or even your company’s top gun.

Bottom line
Performance evaluations are a very important tool for managing your workforce, but only if you do them consistently and candidly and follow up on the deficiencies you’ve identified.

Don’t forget that an evaluation can be used against you in litigation if you’re too kind or make a feeble attempt at humor. Keep in mind the reason you’re doing evaluations, and make your evaluation form fit your organization’s needs. If you can do all that, you deserve an A+ in Performance Evaluations 101!