Performance evaluations can help management improve employee performance and adjust staff expectations. However, if done improperly, performance evaluations can create more legal liability than they help to avoid.
This article lists 10 practice pointers for improving your performance evaluation system in the new year.
1. Use a simple form tailored to your business
The form you use should be easy for managers and employees to understand. It must be simple and tailored to the jobs being reviewed.
Don’t use an off-the-shelf form or one that is too complicated for the situation. Having the right form is the foundation of the entire evaluation process.
2. Be truthful — Don’t sugarcoat things!
As with other employer communications, honesty is essential to the evaluation process. Fairness and objectivity are also important companions to honesty. Managers cannot sugarcoat evaluations and hope that underperforming employees will improve on their own.
Managers who are not honest do a serious disservice to their employer. Employees need to know where they fall short and how they need to improve — before their jobs are at risk. Evaluations that appear to be at odds with an employee’s “true” performance can be a real problem in litigation, too.
3. Be constructive
At some point in the process, tell the employee what specific behaviors you expect in the coming year. Be constructive and forward-looking and set the employee up to succeed in the job. Most people will respond better to constructive input rather than criticism of past behaviors.
Also, tell the employee what assistance you will offer to help the employee meet your expectations. Then, if the employee does not meet the stated expectations, discipline or discharge will be more legally defensible.
4. Cite critical incidents or objective examples
One of the key reasons for performance evaluations is to rehabilitate and salvage underperformers before separation from employment becomes a possibility. The best way to help employees learn and understand what is expected is to cite specific incidents or examples of good or unsatisfactory performance.
Reference to specific words or actions can show an employee what type of workplace behavior is desired or discouraged. Using specifics or critical incidents is certainly preferred to using subjective, vague or conclusory descriptions that the employee may dispute or not understand.
Plus, reference to specific incidents can be helpful in litigation to show examples of why a particular employee was subsequently terminated, not promoted or denied other opportunities.
5. Avoid overly subjective comments
The opposite of objective feedback is subjective feedback. Overgeneralized terms or clichés such as “bad attitude,” “uncooperative” or “too passive” may cause an employee to be defensive.
The employee may not be able to understand such vague descriptions and, thus, the evaluation may not be effective in changing the employee’s behavior in the long run.
6. Consider the entire performance period
The evaluation should take into account the employee’s performance over the entire period, including the ups and downs or highs and lows, if any.
One common mistake is for managers to let one good (or bad) example of an employee’s behavior or performance affect their judgment of the employee for the entire performance period. Another common mistake is to look only at the most recent performance and to let that affect the assessment of the entire period.
Either way, the evaluation will not accurately reflect the employee’s performance if these mistakes are made.
7. Be consistent
Inconsistent application of evaluation standards can adversely affect morale or employee involvement, indicate favoritism or undermine respect for managers, the evaluation process and even the employer’s reputation. Moreover, inconsistencies can give rise to legal claims for discrimination if they are perceived to or actually run parallel to racial, ethnic, sexual or other legally protected categories.
8. Complete evaluations in a timely manner
Few things undermine the evaluation process — and overall respect for management — more than not completing the evaluation on time. Managers can demonstrate professionalism and respect for employees by doing evaluations when they say they will do them.
9. Have a central authority review every evaluation
As a safeguard in the evaluation process, employers should assign one person to review all performance evaluations. Having one central reviewer will help to avoid unwanted trends or patterns, such as subjectivity, differences or inconsistencies among reviewers, positive or negative leanings, central tendency shifts, stereotyping, biases, undue negativity of comments, or grading based on halos or first impressions.
Having a single person review evaluations can go a long way toward protecting the employer from these and other kinds of mistakes that can come back to haunt the employer in court.
10. Don’t forget to give feedback throughout the evaluation period
Performance evaluation should be an ongoing process. Reducing a discussion about performance to a single time each year deprives the employee of the opportunity to make immediate corrections in performance or behavior and the employer of the benefit of those in-term corrections.
This is why some commentators have gone so far as to advocate doing away completely with once-per-year evaluations in favor of constant feedback.
Performance evaluations are important for improving performance and avoiding liability. There is no better time for improving your evaluation system than as we start a new year.
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