IN THE NEWS: Sharon Armstrong talks about "Fair Appraisals"

FAIR APPRAISALS

Setting Benchmarks For Employee Evaluations Demonstrates Good Management

By Carolyn Heinze
August 17, 2009
Systems Contractor News

For many, the phrase “evaluation time” conjures up images of classrooms, report cards, parent-teacher meetings and, for those that didn’t do their homework all semester, the prospect of being grounded. It may be years, decades even, since any of us have been in school, but once the announcement is made that our work will be formally appraised, it’s difficult not to slip back into the mindset of a school kid.

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In the workplace, an effective employee evaluation process should not instigate an “us versus them” mentality. In fact, it should demonstrate good management, said Dick Grote, of Grote Consulting Corporation in Frisco, TX. “The reason we do these is because it’s an ethical obligation of leadership,” he said. “Every person who works for an organization wants to know: What is it you expect of me? How am I doing at meeting your expectations?” It’s up to the company to provide these answers, he said.

When done right, said Sharon Armstrong of the Washington, DC-based consulting firm Sharon Armstrong and Associates, and co-author (with Madelyn Appelbaum) of Stress- Free Performance Appraisals: Turn Your Most Painful Management Duty into a Powerful Motivational Tool, as well as (with Barbara Mitchell) The Essential HR Handbook, evaluations are ongoing. “That means that you are keeping this conversation going when people are doing the right thing, and nudging them gently when something needs to happen,” she said. “The performance evaluation is a culmination of all of those conversations.” The key factor, she added, is to train managers that the evaluation is not an annual event; it’s an ongoing conversation, one that should take into account how the business changes throughout the year.”

The beginning of every new evaluation cycle should start with the establishment of goals. What, exactly do you expect that employee to deliver within a specified timeframe? What aims are you striving for on a strategic level, and how does the employee fit into the big picture? Once this is accomplished, supervisors and employees should get together on a regular basis to evaluate whether the employee is achieving these goals and, if not, why. “It remains your obligation to check in and see how an employee is doing, and to help them when they hit any barriers,” Armstrong said.

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John Guettler, senior consultant at HRGroup in Tempe, AZ, notes that part of the evaluation should be dedicated to discussing the employee’s career objectives. Where is this individual heading for, professionally, and what can the supervisor to do assist them in achieving this? “There should be an open-ended dialogue on where the person wants to go, and how to get there,” he said.

Performance appraisals, Armstrong underlined, should be a positive experience for employees—something that serves to motivate rather than demoralize. It should cover the highlights: what that employee achieved that added value to the company, a couple of areas in which they can make improvements, and how the employer is going to help them to make these improvements. Then you can start setting goals for the next cycle.

These discussions, Guettler indicated, should always be two-way. “It should not be done with a top-down approach with the supervisor doing all of the talking,” he emphasized. “That always results in defensiveness on the part of the employee. It should be an open-ended dialogue.”

In general, the majority of employee evaluations are positive. There will, however, be times when it’s necessary to address problem staffers, and that requires a bit of finesse. “If you feel that it’s going to be prickly, I advise discussing it before writing in the formal evaluation,” Armstrong recommended.

“Before I include it in the appraisal, I would want to find out what really happened, because I might not have all of the facts. I certainly wouldn’t want to write something down and have it be a part of the formal appraisal until I gave the employee the opportunity to explain it to me.” The employee’s input, combined with that of the supervisor, becomes the performance appraisal in the end. “It doesn’t mean that you have to buckle; it just means that you’re giving the employee a fair shake at explaining what happened, and then you are determining what to do with that information.”

One way of handling sticky situations is during a mid-cycle review, which is an informal version of the annual employee evaluation. “Typically, they don’t count as far as being a permanent part of a person’s record, and salary adjustments aren’t made on the basis of a mid-term review,” Grote said. “If you’re a manager, you can be a lot tougher with an employee during a mid-term review.”

If the process is working properly, the gap between how the employee regards their performance and what the supervisor thinks shouldn’t be that significant, according to Guettler. “If you structure this process so that it’s ongoing, and so that there is ongoing dialogue, you won’t have those big trenches,” he said. “In most cases, employees are harder on themselves than their supervisor would be.”

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