Many employers evaluate their employees’ performance at some point during the employment relationship, such as annually or at the conclusion of an introductory period. Often, however, these employers conduct performance reviews as a matter of course without knowing why it is important to do so. Some supervisors and managers also are unaware of legal issues associated with conducting performance evaluations thoroughly and accurately.

Why Are Performance Evaluations Important?

Improving employees’ performance is the primary reason for conducting performance evaluations. Most employees want to understand where they are succeeding in their jobs and where their performance could be improved. Providing employees with regular feedback allows them to enhance their demonstrated skills and improve in areas where needed. It also increases productivity.

Another important reason for conducting formal evaluations is to create a written record of an employee’s performance. When a personnel decision must be made — whether positive or negative — it is important to have a written record of the employee’s performance to substantiate the action taken. Documenting good performance justifies favorable action if challenged by another employee who does not receive the same benefit. Similarly, if a disgruntled employee sues or files an agency charge, written performance reviews, if done properly, can provide crucial evidence for the employer, particularly when the dispute is performance-related.

To be effective, performance evaluations should include the following: (1) an evaluation of factors relevant to the performance of the job; (2) an objective, honest, and accurate description of the performance that pinpoints specific facts and behavioral examples; and (3) the identification of performance or developmental goals that are specific, measurable, and time-bound. Employers should consider creating a written “checklist” for evaluators to ensure each of these elements is covered.

Practical Tips for Employers

In addition to the general guidelines discussed above, employers should consider the following tips to ensure a successful performance evaluation process.

Use evaluations to motivate and develop employees. Encouraging employees and praising good performance is a good way to motivate people and can be much more effective than frequent criticism.

Of course, constructive criticism is an important part of an employee’s evaluation. However, to avoid the unpleasantness that may be associated with providing constructive feedback, some employers have a tendency to “inflate” performance evaluations. While this is understandable, it can be dangerous.

For instance, in defending a wrongful termination lawsuit on the grounds the termination was for good cause, e.g., poor performance, the employer may have a difficult time convincing the jury to render a verdict in its favor if the employee has received “exceeds expectations” evaluations for the past 10 years. To avoid this problem, employers should be objective, honest, and accurate when preparing evaluations and during the evaluation meeting with the employee.

Be timely. Evaluations should be conducted in accordance with the time period set by the employer. Employers who are late in conducting evaluations may be perceived as inattentive to employees’ needs and not interested in employees’ professional development.

Use evaluations to improve performance. Because productivity and good performance are the primary goals of any business operation, performance evaluations should be used to encourage employees to improve their work product.

Engage in regular performance feedback. Even if employers conduct formal, written evaluations only on an annual basis, employees should be given opportunities throughout the review period to correct performance problems and should be praised for good work.

What about self-evaluations and 180 degree evaluations? An effective performance evaluation process should be a two-way street. Employees who are encouraged to evaluate their supervisors’ and managers’ performance are more likely to take the process seriously and participate in a more meaningful way.

Employers also should consider implementing a “self-evaluation” process to obtain feedback regarding employees’ perceptions of their performance. Thorough an interactive evaluation process, employers may receive valuable feedback on training, benefits, and other issues important for employee retention.

Be consistent. Each performance evaluation should be considered part of a continuing appraisal of an employee’s performance. Evaluators should review prior evaluations and seek to expand upon areas discussed previously. If continuity is not appropriate, the reasons for this should be apparent in the evaluations.

Carefully consider the location of the evaluation interviews. Preparing the performance evaluation is only the first part of the process. The evaluation also must be communicated to the employee. When conducting the evaluation meeting, the evaluator should give 100% of his or her time and attention to the employee. The discussion of the evaluation is a significant event for the employee, and the evaluator should seek to convey an understanding and appreciation of this fact to the employee.

Schedule sufficient time for the evaluation meeting. In addition to selecting the right location and setting for the evaluation meeting, the evaluator should ensure adequate time is devoted to the discussion. Many employees consider the performance evaluation meeting a unique opportunity to engage in dialogue with their supervisors or managers. These employees will appreciate the scheduling of sufficient time to cover the evaluation in detail and discuss questions and concerns.

Ensure everyone understands the evaluation process. Good communication is the key to success in the workplace. Because written evaluation forms are often long and filled with ambiguous codes or phrases, employers should consider beginning the evaluation meeting with a clear explanation of the process. In addition, all employees should be provided with information regarding the evaluation process when they are hired, and supervisors and managers should receive additional training on how to prepare and conduct effective performance evaluations.

Management sets the tone for performance evaluations. As such, it is important for all supervisors and managers to receive an occasional reminder of the importance of the evaluation process. Done right and done regularly, evaluations are an essential part of an employer’s overall success. They also will assist employers in the event employees take legal action to challenge adverse employment decisions.

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