The Proactive Performance Appraisal

by Leonard W. Sachs
Howard & Howard Attorneys, PC

Employees face few workplace interactions with greater trepidation than the annual performance review. The process culminates in the adult equivalent of being called to the principal’s office. Management’s failure to display sincere empathy in determining the time, place and manner of the formal review meeting consistently results in an unproductive exercise that may present more harm than good.

Management must complete the review process in a timely manner. Employees know when the time arrives for their annual review. A delay of even a week or two undermines the credibility of the process and management’s ability to use the evaluation tool as a means of performance improvement. Schedule the meeting at a date and time that you know with reasonable certainty you will not be required to reschedule. Remember, this is a potentially traumatic event for the employee and the emotional roller coaster associated with the last-minute cancellation of a review inevitably results in a distracted, unproductive employee.

Selecting the appropriate location for the formal evaluation meeting also makes a difference as to its effectiveness. Avoid the manager’s office, if a conference room or less threatening room is available. In any event, do not deliver the evaluation message from the power position behind a desk. If you cannot locate alternative space, come around to the front and sit beside your employee as you go over the document. Devote your undivided attention to the process. Do not accept calls or interruptions.

Avoid inflated evaluations. There is no substitute for candor in any relationship. Unfortunately, from the first moment we learn the truth about Santa Claus, society conditions us to accept that it’s okay for a person in a position of power to tell some lies or stretch the truth so long as we can justify our position with a legitimate reason. Unfortunately, we can come up with a host of “legitimate” reasons to avoid the unpleasantness of telling someone that he failed to meet our expectations. The justifications for inflating evaluations are limited only by imagination. The harsh reality is that any rationalization reflects an underlying, knowing act of managerial dishonesty.

More difficult to overcome are the subconscious biases that result in inaccurate reviews. Consider evaluating the following employee based on a five-level evaluation format, with one representing "failure to meet expectations," two representing "needs improvement," three representing "meets expectations," four representing "exceeds expectations," and five representing "far exceeds expectations."

Margaret serves as the role model for the archetypal perfect employee. She shows up to work every day on time, dresses appropriately, volunteers for overtime, takes personal accountability, treats coworkers with respect and dignity, helps others when she completes her projects, addresses customers by name, avoids office gossip, and genuinely appears happy to be part of your team.

Most supervisors and managers would rank Margaret a four or a five. In reality, Margaret should be ranked as three—meets expectations. The behaviors Margaret displays reflect management’s reasonable expectations of all employees. Managers tend to rank such an employee more highly because in common experience, few of her coworkers perform at this desired level. Such a manager falls victim to the bias of relativity—evaluating an employee not against an objective standard, but based on a comparison to other employees.

Other subconscious biases include the “halo” and “horn” effect. These biases focus the evaluator on one positive or negative factor that ignores other evaluation criteria, resulting in an artificially low or high overall evaluation. Another common bias involves “recency and primacy.” This bias tends to cause the evaluator to focus on recent events and ignore the overall evaluation period. Even the most lackluster performer can shine during the six-week period prior to his annual review. Other subconscious influences include leniency, severity, evaluating the position and not performance, stereotyping, and the longevity bias. Most of these instinctive biases result in inflated evaluations.

Overcoming a pattern of inflated evaluations requires a delicate touch in order to minimize an adverse employee response. An employee who enjoys a history of glowing, yet inaccurate, reviews will react defensively and may be demotivated by the process. Taking proactive steps in the evaluation procedure will lessen the likelihood of a negative reaction to a truthful, fair evaluation.

The most meaningful proactive approach involves modifying the evaluation form itself. Many employers rate employees based on a five-point evaluation standard. Others employ a rating system based on a one-to-100 standard. These formats should be replaced with a simple three-part evaluation form: "needs improvement," "meets expectations," "exceeds expectations." Ninety percent of your employees should be rated as "meets expectations" or "needs improvement." Only those employees who go above and beyond what is required for their position should be rated as "exceeds expectations." By changing the evaluation form itself, you possess a legitimate explanation for a lower than historic rating.

Another proactive approach involves the self-evaluation. People tend to defend what they help to create. On balance, most employees will more harshly criticize themselves than would their manager. This can also give the employee the opportunity to manage up. You should ask the employee to provide information about your performance. Consider asking for feedback about what you have done over the past year that advanced the employee’s performance, what you could do in the coming year to help the employee meet her goals, and what you have done over the past year that you should consider discontinuing.

Successful evaluations avoid surprises. Surprised employees file lawsuits. The last question you should ask in the evaluation meeting is: Does the review contain any surprises? If it does, you probably have failed to make the performance appraisal part of a well-documented, continual process over the entire evaluation period.

Finally, the most defensible performance evaluations reflect a collaborative process with senior management and HR. After completing the draft evaluation, the evaluator’s manager should review the document and provide meaningful comments. After management review, a representative of the human resource department should review the evaluation for consistency and potential employment law pitfalls. A common mistake uncovered by such reviews is the inconsistency between a numerical ranking and a narrative. The only thing worse than two inconsistent documents is one document that contradicts itself. iBi

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