Fear Factor in the Workplace: Would You Rather Eat Bugs Than Do Employee Performance Evaluations?
Operations Manager/HR Administrator
This article is intended to provide accurate and authoritative information regarding the subject matter covered. Neither McElroy Translation nor the author are engaged in rendering professional human resources or legal services. If legal or expert human resources assistance is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought.
Every employee deserves at least once a year an investment of your time, effort, and personal attention in an honest and formal evaluation of their performance. Follow these tips to make the event as positive, productive, and painless as possible.
Kim Vitray has been Operations Manager at McElroy Translation in Austin, Texas, since 1999. She holds a Professional in Human Resources certification from the Society for Human Resource Management and also functions as McElroy’s Human Resources Administrator. She is Administrator of the ATA’s Translation Company Division.
Why do performance evaluations? Because your employees need and deserve to know how they are doing, what’s going well, what needs improvement, what you expect, where they can grow, what opportunities are available, and how they can succeed. Every employee deserves at least once a year an investment of your time, effort, and personal attention in an honest and formal evaluation of their performance. And performance evaluations serve several good purposes: they (1) provide feedback and counseling, (2) guide allocation of rewards and opportunities, (3) determine employees’ aspirations and plan training and development, (4) communicate expectations, and (5) foster commitment, good communication, and mutual understanding.
Of course, three prerequisites should be in place before effective performance evaluations can be held. These include: (1) a good written job description, (2) good training, and (3) an “incident” file. An incident file is where you keep notes, emails, and other documentation about an employee’s activities and performance. Throughout the year, every time you provide feedback to an employee, receive a compliment about them, know that they attended training or participated in an event, and so on, just put a note in their incident file. You’ll then find that their annual performance evaluation practically writes itself. Just pretend that anything you put in an incident file may be read aloud in court one day, and be sure to keep such files for everyone, not just certain staff.
It’s important to be timely with performance evaluations — being late signals to employees that they and their performance are not important to you. Recognize that a good performance evaluation takes time, and set aside that time for the task.
Performance evaluations should always be in writing — there are many forms and templates available in office supply stores and on the web that you can use as guides, although you should customize them for your environment. The categories I use are Responsibilities, Accomplishments, Job Knowledge/Performance/Productivity, Dependability/Cooperation/Initiative, Work Environment/Safety (this is more or less applicable, depending upon the position), Overall Performance, and Discussion/Action Items. For manager and leader positions, I add these categories: Managerial Skills, Communication Skills, Problem Solving/Conflict Resolution, Administrative Skill, and Time Management.
Ask the employee to prepare a written self-evaluation. Schedule a day for you and the employee to “trade” evaluations with each other, and also schedule a formal sit-down meeting and lunch (your treat!) on the next day. This 24-hour period (don’t do it on a Friday) between exchanging evaluations and meeting to discuss them allows you both the opportunity to see where you agree and disagree, how well your discussion and action items match, and anything else that might need addressing.
Here is the cardinal rule for performance evaluations: Nothing should be a surprise. If you have done a good job throughout the year as manager, trainer, and coach, then your and your employee’s evaluation will align very well, and the meeting can be a positive and productive discussion about how to move forward, even when there are difficult or negative issues to be resolved.
You might also consider using a 360-degree feedback mechanism. This is where, in addition to your evaluation as “the boss” and the employee’s self-evaluation, the employee’s peers and direct reports (if they have any) are also invited to provide feedback. There are a number of web-based 360-degree feedback instruments; this year I am using one called the Leadership Navigator for Corporate Leaders, which is available through the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). This particular instrument costs $140 per person being evaluated, is completely administered and taken online with a final compiled report available to you in PDF format, and takes only 15 minutes for a participant to complete. It covers business focus, talent development, inclusiveness, integrity, results orientation, customer focus, team leadership, and communication skills; breaks out strengths and development needs; and allows participants to provide narrative comments in response to “This person’s most effective behavior or skill at work is…” and “The one area that this person needs to work on is….”
Following are some common evaluation “errors” to avoid1:
In your written evaluation, be sure that you can support every comment, both positive and negative, with examples or documentation (this is where your incident file comes in really handy!). Avoid exaggerated, inflammatory, or emotional language; be as accurate and objective as possible. Also be specific and complete. List as many accomplishments as you can; it’s a strong, positive statement to the employee when you can remember and list more accomplishments from the past year than they can. Relate your comments as much as possible to the job description; don’t compare the employee to other employees. Be honest and direct, yet professional, polite, and constructive, in both word choice and tone. Try to balance between positive and negative feedback, and be sure to consider their performance across the whole time period. Focus on their behaviors, which they can change, not their personality, which they cannot.
Give specific examples of both positive and negative behaviors. For example, “Employee X is very considerate and proactive in covering phones and other administrative tasks when needed. Examples include helping me assemble new employee handbooks, handling phones so the receptionist could go home when ill, and helping our bookkeeper with invoice mailings.” Or, “Employee Y experienced a performance slump during the last three months of last year, which was evidenced primarily by reduced ability to keep up with her correspondence and tasks in a timely manner, and more mistakes and oversights and less organization and detail than we were accustomed to seeing in her work.”
Avoid absolute language, such as “always” and “never.” Don’t say “Employee X is always late for his shift” unless that is absolutely true. It’s better to say something like “Employee X was late for his shift at least two times per week during the last three months.” And only address performance problems that are patterns, not isolated incidents. Clearly and specifically communicate what the problems are, why they are problems, what behavior or actions you want to be different, and how you want them to be different. Likewise, when praising behavior, clearly state how pleased you were to see it and how much you’re looking forward to it continuing and expanding. Sandwich any constructive feedback between praise.
Before the meeting, anticipate and consider in advance all the potential responses or questions the employee might have, and be prepared for them. Set aside plenty of time for the visit, and do not allow interruptions. Realize that the employee will be nervous, and take time at the beginning of the meeting to establish rapport and set them at ease.
Be as polite, respectful, and positive as possible, particularly when discussing constructive feedback, even if the employee is not. Be very aware of your body language and tone. Place more emphasis on the future than the past when discussing constructive feedback, and realize that it is human nature for the employee to zero in on the one constructive suggestion you may have made, instead of the many accomplishments you praised. Focus most of the discussion on the action plan.
If the employee brings up an issue or question that is a surprise or you are not prepared to discuss, you can defer, but don’t forget or wait too long to address it. Always ask what you can do differently, better, or more of; and don’t forget to ask what they need, and if they have any questions, concerns, or comments. Actively encourage their input to these questions—it may not be enough to simply ask once. When they do respond, listen without interrupting —no matter what they say! And close by thanking the employee for something—good work, another year of service, extra contributions, loyalty, dependability, and so on.
In closing, I strongly recommend that you join SHRM (www.shrm.org). The membership is only $160 per year, and it will be worth many times more than that to you in terms of job descriptions, articles, policies, forms, and a great deal more that they offer. And always bear in mind one of my favorite quotes, by Dale Carnegie: “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.” Welcome to HR!
1 From The SHRM Learning System, 2000, Module Two, General Employment Practices.
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