Performance evaluations that matter

Performance reviews. Everybody has ’em. In fact, I just had one, which also happened to coincide with my one year mark at my current company (go me). I guess it’s not really surprising, then, that I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good performance evaluation, and what could make them better. Here are a few things I’ve come up with:

Be honest

Every performance evaluation I’ve ever had has consisted of a few categories, rated on some number scale (usually one to 10, 10 being “thank you, oh marvelous being, for deigning to walk among us” and one being “here’s a box, pack your things. Leave the stapler”), along with a few comments. And I’ve never been rated below “satisfactory” or “average” on any category, in any evaluation, ever. Now, that could just be that I’m awesome (and I’m not willing to rule out the possibility entirely), but I suspect otherwise. I suspect the real reason is that the scale is broken, and it’s hard to be honest using it.

For one thing, too many numbers leaves a lot of room for interpretation, even when the numbers are labeled (“four is ‘quasi-average’? Seriously? What does that even mean?”). And when it’s someone from their department, managers and team leads usually don’t want to make their guys look and/or feel bad by giving them low scores (because numbers less than five are jerks and say demoralizing things about your mom when you’re not listening), which leads to the “but” comments. As in, “Well, we rated your employee conduct a five out of ten, but we’re gonna have to ask you to stop peeing in the water cooler.”

“But” comments are a gross abuse of the system. If you rate me average, you’d better mean that I’m average, and not that you think I need improvement, but you don’t want to hurt my feelings. Artificially inflating my rating is similarly harmful. How can I continue to improve if you tell me that I’m already “good enough”?

Shrink the number scale

I’m not saying we should do away with numbers, not at all. Numbers, if tracked consistently over time, can give a great sense of how things are going, and it can be very rewarding to see something that you scored a five in on the last go-round be bumped up to a six or a seven because of effort that you’ve made. The problem is when the numbers are just that… numbers, not accurate indicators of progress. The solution to this is to shrink the scale. Why have ten possibilities when you don’t use the bottom five? Cut out those losers on the bottom half of the evaluation number line, and then think about the scores you’re doling out. In fact, here’s an idea if you’re suffering from stuck-in-the-middle… itis: have an even number of ratings, and don’t allow half ratings. That means that the evaluator can’t just cop out and put “average” when they really mean “does not meet expectations.”

Focus on the most important things

When I’m in a performance evaluation, I don’t need or want a detailed explanation of why I scored the way I did in every category. I don’t need to know exactly why I scored a “satisfactory” on attendance and punctuality when I know perfectly well that I’m at my desk by nine o’clock every day. If you’re being honest with your ratings, you can just say, “you are meeting expectations in this area. Good work.” If I want to know how I can improve, I’ll ask.

What I do want are details about the categories in which I was either above or below average. If something needs improvement, let me know what’s going on and why you gave me the rating you did, and if necessary, help me come up with a specific plan to correct it. If I’m doing well in an area, tell me specifically what I’m doing right. People like sincere praise; it’s just a fact of life. If I know that my efforts are being noticed, I’ll be more likely to continue them.

Follow up

Another critically important thing — seriously, you cannot forget this — is follow-up on previous evaluations. If you asked me to improve in an area, or helped me set a goal for improvement, you can’t just let it go and never mention it again, or I will know that you are full of crap and that these evaluations are just a formality that I can forget about as soon as I leave your office. So, hold me accountable. It’s more work on your part because it means that you’ll have to pull out my old reviews and see how my scores have evolved, and you’ll have to remember to check up on the goals I’ve set from time to time, but it’s worth it. Humans are amazing creatures. With accountability and proper motivation, we can accomplish literally anything. Without it, we’re pretty much just monkeys banging on typewriters hoping to come up with a few sonnets. Get it? That was an infinite monkeys joke… Shakespeare? No? Nevermind.

Encourage teamwork

My wife works at a credit union. They rate their employees on a one to five scale; three means that you are meeting all of the expectations and standards that the credit union has (i.e., you are a “good employee”). My wife, who is probably the most model employee that I have ever met, has scored exactly one four in her time at the credit union (along with a few 3.75s), and doesn’t know of anyone who has scored a five. I asked her what it would take to score a five on an evaluation — the four that she scored, for example, was in attendance, because she is never late to work. I asked her how she could possibly hope to score a five in attendance, because she can’t arrive early to her opening shift; her answer really made me think.

She said that to score a five in something like attendance, you would have to go above and beyond your individual duty, and do everything you could to encourage your coworkers to be on time: send out text reminders, maybe, or create a competition to encourage attendance. In other words, scoring top marks is not only dependent on you doing your personal best, but on how well you help your team do their best, as well.

One thought on “Performance evaluations that matter

  1. For each employee, my company has the manager and the employee rate independently and then compare jointly on a scale of 1-5 for 15 different categories.
    The company mandates 4 specific categories, and lets the manager choose the other 11.
    The categories can be anything from Attendance, Critical Thinking, or Goal Achievement. (We also set down 3 major goals for the year in the performance review.)

    One of the things I find it hard to balance is when my employees think up new solutions to old problems, or increase productivity or improve a certain process. On one hand, I like to rate them high for their ingenuity. On the other hand, the reason why I hired them in the first place is precisely for that ingenuity; it’s expected.

    Another thing I’ve found difficult is that the goals we enter every year don’t seem to work very well. I mean, we fill them out once per year and then forget about them until next year. This year, I’ve been reviewing these goals periodically to see if that makes a difference. So far it has a little.

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