How to Appraise Employee Performance

Catch Them Doing Something Good

Last month Library Worklife featured an article on how employees should prepare for performance evaluations. This month we look at what employers can do to make performance appraisals productive.

It seems employers and employees alike dislike performance appraisals. Employees fear them as remonstrations. Employers put them off as yet another drain on their time. According to Karen McKirchy, author of Powerful Performance Appraisals: How to Set Expectations and Work Together to Improve Performance (Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press, 1998), employers tend to put off employee performance appraisals because supervisors:

  1. fear a confrontation;

  2. lack interpersonal or interviewing skills;

  3. fear “making matters worse by talking about the review;”

  4. feel overwhelmed by overly complex appraisal forms that seem to require a supervisor and employee to address everything in one meeting;

  5. fear that oversight by the manager’s superior will “overshadow real communication and make the process seem phony;”

  6. don’t want to disappoint a good employee when the manager is powerless to deliver a promotion; and

  7. don’t want to discuss salary.

Yet, with the advent of legislation that requires employers to demonstrate that factors used to make decisions regarding hiring, firing, and promotion are indeed related to job performance (and not, for example, race, sex, or religion), it seems formal performance appraisals are here to stay.

So how do managers get it right when it comes time to review employee performance?

William Swan, author of How to Do a Superior Performance Appraisal (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1991), suggests employers avoid these eight common mistakes in employee performance reviews:

  1. inadequately defined standards of performance;

  2. over-emphasis on recent performance;

  3. reliance on gut feelings;

  4. miscomprehension of performance standards by employee;

  5. insufficient or unclear performance documentation;

  6. inadequate time allotted for discussion;

  7. too much talking by manager or supervisor; and

  8. lack of a follow-up plan.

To avoid these errors, McKirchy suggests that the following steps might help:

  • Review the employee’s job description. Ask yourself, “What is it that I really want my employee to do?” McKirchy then suggests that “if there’s more than a 10 percent change from what’s written in the job description, rewrite it! Better yet, write it with your employee.” Involving the employee not only helps define relevant standards of performance—after all, who knows the job better than the person doing it—but it also helps employees understand performance standards.
  • Keep a performance log. Documenting employee performance is time-consuming, but it makes it easier to write an appraisal that reflects more than recent memory. According to McKirchy, the log should include:
    • date;
    • event;
    • action taken;
    • result; and
    • follow-up information on each employee.

McKirchy suggests that managers pick a time each week to update their logs. She urges managers to “stick to the facts,” adding that “personal feelings or opinions will not be helpful to you later.” Swan echoes her caution, adding that gut feelings are “notoriously untrustworthy, not legally defensible, and not much use when it comes to giving feedback to the employee.” Much better to have concrete evidence to help you 1) explain performance standards or deficiencies to employees, and 2) confirm or modify your gut feelings based on documented facts.

  • Schedule adequate time and privacy for the performance review. McKirchy suggests scheduling the meeting in a private room where there will be no interruptions. Of course, she says, no one should begin a performance evaluation while he or she is angry or upset. Her advice: “Make sure . . . you are in control of the issues and your emotions. Decide before the meeting the minimum action you will consider acceptable, what alternative solutions are available, and when you expect performance to improve.”
  • Let the employee do the talking. McKirchy suggests opening the meeting by saying something like “Let’s begin by talking about how you think you’re doing on the job. I’d like you to start by telling me several things you think you do particularly well. Please give me specific examples.” She then suggests that the supervisor ask the employee to explain how and why he or she is good at the specific skill. For example, “In what ways are you good at relating to customers? What are some of the things you do . . . ?” McKirchy says that this approach establishes a “give-and-take, cooperative” tone, in which the employee actively participates in a discussion of her or his performance.
  • Close the meeting by developing a plan for improvement. McKirchy suggests working with the employee to identify not only areas in which he or she excels, but also areas in which improvement is needed. (“Let’s talk about another area in which I think you’re performing effectively. In fact, I think it’s an area in which you could improve. (Pause) I’d like to explain my thinking and get your reactions. And I’d like us to reach some agreement on what you could work on to improve your performance over the next couple of months.”)

By asking the employee for his or her input regarding his or her performance, the supervisor establishes a cooperative environment in which (ideally) both agree on a plan for improvement. The plan probably will require the employee to do certain things within a given timeframe (e.g., meet deadlines, report for work on time). It may also require the employer to work to remove certain roadblocks or frustrations within the same time frame.

McKirchy suggests working with the employee to prioritize the tasks at hand. (“Why don’t you take a few minutes to talk about the specific things that you’d like to be working on in the next few weeks?”) According to McKirchy, “the interview should proceed with the supervisor and employee listing all the areas needing work, setting reasonable dates for things that need to be done, and discussing all the ways the supervisor can help the employee achieve the objective.”

She suggests writing down the plan and giving the employee a copy as the meeting closes. Schedule follow-up meetings as needed, she says, but don’t wait for a formal meeting to give feedback. If you see improvement immediately, let the employee know.

VI. Follow up by “catching your employees doing something good.” According to McKirchy, too many employers are quick to characterize good performance as merely normal (i.e., it’s “expected and what they are paid to do.”) According to McKirchy, this approach discounts a person’s natural pride in his or her work.

So if you’re an employer, why not seize an opportunity to build good employee relations without necessarily having to increase compensation? When you see your employee acting on the plan outlined at the performance evaluation meeting, let him know and express your appreciation. Catch him or her doing something good.

Christine Martin is an aspiring freelance writer and 1997 graduate of the University of Illinois’ Graduate School of Library and Information Science.