HR Hero Line

Making ‘Subjective’ Employment Criteria ‘Objective’

Most employers understand that they should discourage the use of subjective criteria to make hiring, advancement, and severance decisions. However, many supervisors still insist that they must consider subjective criteria because factors like “attitude,” “initiative,” and “reliability” simply can’t be made objective. True or false? Let’s break it down.

Every employee undoubtedly has certain tasks that he must perform as part of his job. Even without a formal written job description, employees are tasked with certain functions they must perform satisfactorily if they want to retain their jobs. Employers and employees alike would typically agree that major and essential job duties (e.g., produce 10 widgets per hour) are usually identified up front and are generally well understood by both parties to the employment relationship. Still, employers frequently insist that there are also a number of subjective factors that are critical to an employee’s success. For example, does the employee have a good “attitude”? Will he demonstrate satisfactory “initiative”? Is he “reliable” and a “team player”?

So is it true that every job has several performance criteria that are simply subjective and “squishy” and must be left to the employer’s judgment? No. Every organization can make seemingly subjective performance criteria objective if it simply takes the time to analyze the critical criteria and identify the objective performance measures that should be taken into consideration to arrive at the allegedly “subjective” rating of an employee’s performance. Here’s an example.

Employment Practices Self-Audit Workbook

Choose your ‘attitude’
As an employer, what are you trying to measure? Perhaps whether an employee is responsive and cooperative in the workplace? Whether the employee seems to be focused on the best interests of the organization? Whether the employee is a “team” player? Each of those factors can be made objective by focusing on how the employee performs an essential assigned task and how he conducts himself while performing those tasks.

Here are some sample questions to help “objectify” the seemingly subjective performance criterion of “attitude.” Focusing on the employee’s performance of specific assigned tasks or projects, determine whether the employee:

  • performed them timely, thoroughly, and willingly;
  • was prompt and cooperative when working with coworkers, outside vendors, and customers on those tasks;
  • performed all facets of each task in a manner that clearly advanced the best interests of the organization (as opposed to promoting his “star”); and
  • sought out and handled other duties that went beyond performing the specific assigned tasks.

These are only examples, but if you take the time, you can identify similar objective performance measures that can ultimately help you define and evaluate whether an employee displays a good attitude.

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

What about ‘reliability’?
“Reliability” can be made objective by focusing on timeliness of performance, regularity and punctuality in attendance, and follow-through on assigned tasks. “Initiative” can be assessed objectively by again focusing on specific assigned tasks and determining whether the employee handled them without being constantly reminded and performed them in a timely manner, thoroughly, and with minimal instruction and coaching. Similarly, whether an employee is a “team player” can be examined objectively. Was the employee willing to share information and responsibility with others? Did she advance the interests of the organization above her own interests? Did she take on additional tasks to help the team succeed? Did she reach out to others to collaborate on project solutions and resources?

Basic Training for Supervisors guidebook series, including a guide on documentation and evaluations

Bottom line
Don’t allow managers and supervisors in your organization to whine that subjectivity is critical to evaluating an employee’s performance. To the contrary, terms such as “attitude,” “reliability,” “initiative,” and “team player” need remain subjective only if a manager is simply too lazy to identify the objective performance criteria that can be used to measure the “subjective” categories he wants to evaluate.

Good supervisors are not only masters of the simple explanation but also skilled at breaking down job responsibilities into objective tasks. Take the time to work with your management staff to ensure that they aren’t using subjective labels that can lead to claims of discrimination and unfair treatment.