Making Performance Evaluations Drive Results

A reminder of the basic purposes of performance evaluations sets the stage. Employment law attorney David Gabor of The Wagner Law Group says the process can:

  • Push employees to improve performance
  • Clearly communicate your expectations
  • Hold employees and managers accountable
  • Create metrics that link performance to compensation

It’s a good idea, he suggests, to take a fresh look at the basic structure of your evaluation system, to ensure that you are assessing the relevant performance metrics. “Every component of a performance evaluation system should be there for a reason,” and reflect the performance criteria that are most important to your organization today, he advised a recent webinar audience.

Setting Goals for the Review Session

In planning the review session itself, establish specific takeaways for yourself and the employee. That might be something as simple as making an associate feel more comfortable seeking guidance when he is uncertain about how to prioritize tasks. Or making sure that an employee who you suspect doesn’t know how his job (and performance) contribute to the company’s goals leaves the meeting with a clear understanding of that relationship. Or learning an employee’s career aspirations.

Setting such goals lets you direct the session instead of allowing it to be dictated, for example, merely by the format of the written performance review document or an issue of little consequence that randomly crops up mid-stream.

Legal Red Flags

Gabor also warns that when evaluations of employees whose performance hasn’t been satisfactory aren’t performed properly, you might provide lethal ammunition to plaintiffs’ attorneys if a disgruntled employee is unhappy with his evaluation, particularly if it results in an adverse action. Specific, red flags in employee evaluations that could get you in hot water include:

  • Evidence of disparate treatment of employees. For example, if the review of a poorly performing employee lasted just five minutes and the written document contained harsh language, in contrast to longer reviews and more balanced tone to other reviews (including negative ones), that could spell trouble.
  • Omission of performance related issues. A negative review that strays into matters beyond the scope of the employee’s responsibilities can create legal problems.
  • Lack of a paper trail. If an evaluation criticizes an employee, for example, for chronic tardiness but the personnel records offer no evidence that this problem has been brought to the employee’s attention in the past, a judge considering a discrimination or wrongful termination claim might doubt the employer’s credibility.

A lack of evidence that employee performance (bad or good) has been discussed with the employee since the last review may also reveal an important misconception about performance reviews. Employee performance consultant Marnie Green of the Management Education Group advocates a “no surprises rule.”

“No Surprises”

That means the performance review is not the time to raise new issues with employees. Rather, the review should focus on performance-related discussions that have occurred since the last review, and progress towards addressing those issues or the maintenance of positive performance that has been praised.

Performance issues should be discussed when they become apparent, Green says. In addition to exploiting a “teachable moment,” doing so fosters employee trust, rather than anxiety about what they may hear from a supervisor several months down the road.

Make it a Dialog

Another basic principle of employee reviews recommended by Green: Reviews should be a dialog, not a supervisor’s monolog. But rather than just expect employees to spontaneously discuss their own perspectives on their performance, they should be equipped in advance with a set of questions to discuss. Employees can be asked to describe, for example, their greatest achievements and challenges during the past year, their goals for the next year, and what the company can do to help them achieve those goals.

Also, sharing the written review with the employee prior to the meeting obeys Green’s “no surprises rule,” and opens the door to a more thoughtful discussion of the supervisor’s assessment. Ask the employee to discuss the assessment before you rehash it. That way Green says, the employee will feel an increased ownership of the performance issues — a positive outcome.