Evaluation, Part 1
Updated: 31 March, 2007
We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.
Unless you work at a very small company, the odds are you will give and receive yearly Performance Evaluations (PE). I have mixed feelings about this ritual. At it’s best, the annual PE gives you the opportunity to gather input on each employee’s job performance, assess the previous year’s accomplishments, and make recommendations for development. It focuses your attention, and the employee’s, on things that you may not pay attention to during the rest of the year. At its worst, it gives you the opportunity to show your ignorance of your employees and gives your company the opportunity to force fit them into seemingly arbitrary ratings.
The best performance evaluations I’ve received have been those that gave me insight into my strengths and weaknesses, and which planted one or two seeds that I could use. For example, for years I was criticized, rightly, for cutting deadlines too close. By nature I work best under pressure, and I tend to be most productive when I’ve got a deadline looming. Over the years, my “just in time,” approach to deadlines added unnecessary tension and risk to the projects I worked on.
However, simply pointing that out to me year after year, which is what a whole string of managers did, wasn’t useful. The manager who helped me finally make progress went further. He helped me understand the impact I was having on other members of the team, and he helped me come up with some useful strategies for improvement. Incidentally, one of those strategies is embodied in the way this book is being written. By writing it in public, with a commitment to deliver new content on a regular schedule, I create a whole series of short term goals, each one of which can be reached “just in time” without having an adverse impact on the ultimate result.
That’s the PE at its best, but there’s another, darker side. While most companies tout the value of the PE for professional development, they mostly use the PE to sort employees into winners and losers; those who will get raises and promotions, those who will remain in the same place, and those who will be shown the door. In fact, if you look at the way most companies manage performance evaluation, you’ll see that sorting is what they’re really after, and professional development comes in a distant second.
This reality changes the character of the PE for both manager and employee, robbing it of much of its potential value. For many employees, the PE ritual is simply a game where you puff up your accomplishments to maximize your chance at the goodies. And, for many managers, it’s just another empty exercise in pushing paper that you try to get through with the least possible effort.
Given this reality, and the time pressure most managers live with, you can bet that all but the most conscientious will cut corners; I’ve done it and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t. But, after cutting the corners for way too long, I realized that this was one area that actually deserved my attention, and I changed my attitude. What I realized was that despite the distortions that companies place on the process, the PE ritual still provides unique value for both the manager and the employee.
I also realized that, like planning, the PE process is more important than the PE document. The process of getting feedback, analyzing what the feedback means, formulating recommendations, and talking one-on-one with each member of your team provides benefits you can’t get any other way. To make the process work, you need to approach the effort seriously, invest some time, and combat the de-motivators.
According to Merriam-Webster, a ritual is “an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner.” While the details vary, the core of the PE process fits that definition. In fact, the ritual is so consistent that you can buy software that will lead you through the entire process. I’ve seen packages that will suggest wording for common situations, give you categories and canned responses, and warn you when you use a word that might offend someone.
Here are the main elements of the PE ritual:
- The manager gathers input from the employee’s peers, other managers, and if applicable, anyone who reports to the employee. Sometimes the manager will also ask the employee for a self-assessment or a summary of accomplishments.
- The manager writes the PE, almost always using a standard form. Sometimes the forms are loose, other times they are very tight (for example, Employee has: 1) Excellent interpersonal skills, 2) Very good interpersonal skills, 3) Good interpersonal skills, …).
- The manager, his or her peer managers, and their manager meet to sort the winners and losers and assign a rating or ranking to each employee. This often happens at several levels in the company, merging at each point up the ladder.
- The manager and employee meet to discuss the written PE and the rating or ranking.
- The employee adds comments to the written PE, and possibly negotiates changes with the manager, then signs it.
- The manager files the PE with Human Resources, never to be seen again.
Let’s take a look at the process in detail.
Gathering input is generally the easiest part of the process; you just ask a bunch of people for feedback about the employee. Here are a few guidelines for getting the most out of this part of the process:
- Spread a wide net: Get input from everyone who has worked with the employee. I also ask for input from everyone else in the same writing team, even those who aren’t working directly with the employee.
- Include the employee: One of my managers asked me to write my entire PE; he glanced at it, said it looked fine, and signed it. I wouldn’t recommend going quite this far, but you should ask employees for their input up front. Usually I have them give me an assessment of their accomplishments over the last year. This gives them a chance to shine, and it makes sure you don’t miss anything important. Nothing makes you look more like the pointy headed boss than forgetting an important accomplishment.
- Be flexible: Even in companies that live and die on email, each person has a preference for communicating sensitive information. I generally send an email request, but state that I’ll take input by email, phone, or in person.
- Keep feedback confidential: Be clear about confidentiality. I always state that comments will be confidential unless the person giving comments explicitly says it’s ok to reveal them. And I keep them confidential. If I use a particular comment in a written PE, and I often do, I make sure that the comment is unattributed and doesn’t reveal itself in the wording.
- Ask open-ended questions: Use open-ended questions like, “Tell me about Martha’s interactions with your team,” rather than close-ended questions like, “Did Martha work well with your team?” A close-ended question pushes the response towards a yes or no answer while an open-ended question invites a deeper discussion. In your initial request, ask a couple of specific questions and a general, catch-all question. You want to give people some context, but leave things open for any input they might have.
- Ask positive questions: I usually probe for “weaknesses” using questions that ask for positive suggestions. For example, a question like, “What could Rachel do to improve her interactions with your group?” will get you a more useful answer than, “What are Rachel’s weaknesses?” Most people won’t directly answer the second question unless there’s a big problem, but most will be happy to answer the first with some useful ideas.
- Follow up: If you don’t get a response or you have a question, call and ask. While I won’t hound someone, I do like to get a response from everyone I ask; often it’s the reluctant ones who give you the most revealing input.
- Thank everyone: I always send a thank you email to everyone who replies, even if the reply was, “I didn’t work with Mary this year and have no input.” This is a yearly ritual, and you’ll be back asking for input next year. In the same vein, I always respond when asked for input by other managers.
Once I’ve collected input, I open up a file in an editor and gather everything together in one place. I then read it over looking for common themes and surprises. I also look for a few choice quotes to use in the written evaluation. There’s nothing quite like a glowing quote from a peer to brighten up a PE. Just make sure that the quote doesn’t reveal the author unless you have permission.