Performance evaluation is a process, not a single annual event. It is designed to improve performance through clarification of expectations, monitoring behavior, providing on-going feedback and planning for continuous development. If changes are made to an employee’s role, new performance expectations should be clearly communicated, ideally within the first few weeks of the job change.
The performance evaluation process should extend beyond the annual performance review meeting. The supervisor should provide on-going performance feedback and coaching—recognition for a job well done as well as constructive feedback for improvement. The actual rating provided during the annual performance evaluation should be no surprise to the employee.
The supervisor is responsible for completing the performance evaluation process for each employee. The process is a means for ensuring continuous, open communication between the supervisor and employee. It should clarify expectations and help to strengthen a culture of accountability, recognition, continuous improvement and continuous learning. The process begins at the time of hire, when an employee transfers to a new job, or at the beginning of the annual review period. The performance evaluation should be based on the performance expectations as outlined in the employee’s job description.
The most effective performance evaluation process is built on sound preparation. The supervisor can ensure that they prepare the following elements:
- Be aware of and comply with requirements regarding performance evaluation provided in the employee handbook and relevant employment contracts
- Have sound knowledge of the employee’s work performance in terms of specific behaviors and results achieved. This knowledge will come from their own observations, feedback from others and regular conversations with the employee
- Time and place – set up a time and place for the review meeting that is comfortable for both parties and allows sufficient time without interruptions to have a thorough discussion about performance, future plans and performance expectations, development needs and career growth aspirations and options. Try not to conduct the review conversation across a desk with the parties on opposite sides. Use comfortable chairs set at a 90 degree angle to each other, or sit at two adjacent sides of a table. Ensure eye-level is roughly equal (same height chairs, for example)
- An agenda or list of issues to be discussed
- Relevant forms to be completed and understanding of how to use them
- A respectful relationship built on a history of consistent, considerate, fair treatment, balanced feedback and communication of genuine concern for the employee’s wellbeing and development
Skills and Techniques of Performance Evaluation Process
Effective performance evaluation has clear focus on achieving the desired outcomes. The key strategies and skills involved are:
- Begin with the end in mind – direct every behavior and statement you make towards achieving the desired outcomes from the review conversation. This may involve putting aside personal irritations and temptations to use the review conversation as a vehicle for venting frustrations. Before saying or doing anything that you sense may be controversial, ask yourself whether it will take you closer to the desired outcomes of the conversation or further away.
- Begin by succinctly summarizing the current position on projects or where the department is in its annual cycle of activities – create a context for the discussion that relates to the department’s/organization’s goals
- Offer the employee the chance to reflect first by asking them how they think the year has gone for them. Listen to their answer until they are finished, without butting in or contradicting. Then agree with whatever you can and reframe anything they have said that is overly self-critical. People are often their own worst critics.
- Give effective feedback. See the guide to ‘Giving Constructive Feedback’ in Appendix 3 if you would like more detailed coverage of this topic. You will, ideally, have been giving regular, ongoing feedback over the time since the last formal performance evaluation conversation, so the performance evaluation conversation should just be a summary of the key points from the year. Feedback is best delivered in the form of Situation, Behavior, Impact. This focuses attention on the behavior and reduces the chances the employee interprets any negative feedback as a personal attack. Briefly describe the situation in which behavior you want to comment on was demonstrated. Outline the actual behavior, then explain the impact you think it had. Bear in mind, the employee may have a different perception of the impact because they may have been paying attention to different priorities. Be prepared to explore different perceptions.
- Separate the person from the problems and intentions from behaviors and consequences. The person is not the problem – the problem is the behaviors that are ineffective in achieving desired results. The outcome may not be what they expected their actions would achieve. Separate their intentions from the outcomes of the situation and acknowledge that you believe their intentions were positive (or at least not negative). Assuming their good intentions helps focus on what’s in it for them if they need to do things differently – the outcome will be closer to what they planned and they will get more satisfaction.
- Use a problem solving approach to focus on areas that are not going as well as the department’s objectives require. Outline the gap between the results achieved and the results required. Ask the employee to reflect on where the obstacles have been that led to the gap and what their contribution has been. Acknowledge external factors outside the employee’s control and make a commitment to doing what you can about them. Encourage the employee to identify how they could do things differently that would help close the gap. Don’t dwell too much on the past other than to take the necessary learning from it – focus most attention on what needs to happen in the future.
- ABC analysis. All behaviors (B) have antecedents (A), ie triggers, and consequences (C). When working out how to adjust unhelpful behaviors, analyze what the triggers may be and pay attention to subtle external antecedents – don’t assume the trigger is wholly internal to the employee. Make an effort, also, to analyze the consequences that might subtly be reinforcing the unhelpful behavior. Consider what is acknowledged, valued and rewarded in the department culture at a subconscious level and find ways to adjust that to reinforce helpful behaviors instead.
- Listening, questioning, silence. Use active listening skills (reflecting, paraphrasing, summarizing) and open-ended questions to explore the employee’s perception of their performance, priorities, personal goals and career aspirations, and to help them set performance goals for the coming year. Silence is a very good tool for encouraging people to talk further about something you think needs more reflection. See the guide to ‘Effective communication skills’ in Appendix 2 if you would like more detailed coverage of this area.
Goal Setting in Performance Evaluation Process
When developing a performance evaluation program for an employee, use the SMART approach to goal setting.
- Specific – What will be achieved and why is this important? Consider also relationship with other goals and how this goal may impinge on them.
- Measurable – Define quality and quantity as precisely as possible.
- Achievable – The goal must be realistic within time and resource constraints and the within the capabilities of the employee – knowledge, skills and learning ability (with appropriate support).
- Relevant – The goal must relate to both the employee’s role and the department’s/organization’s objectives, and be an obvious priority in relation to other responsibilities.
- Time-bound – By when should the goal/milestone be completed? Set appropriate review dates to discuss progress regularly.
Explore support and development needs to achieve the goals and identify how these will be met – eg through training, shadowing, coaching, personal reading, etc. Include discussion of career aspirations and possible development opportunities that would help the employee performance evaluation progress.
Performance Evaluation Pitfalls to Avoid
There should be no surprises for the employee in their performance evaluation conversation, unless they are pleasant ones! All feedback on performance improvements required should be delivered as close in time to when the behavior happens as practical.
Halo and Horns
We are naturally inclined to interpret people’s behavior in light of our more general opinion of them and our perceptions are strongly influenced by whether we like people or not. The ‘halo effect’ refers to our tendency to give people we like the benefit of the doubt. The ‘horns effect’ refers to our tendency to force a negative interpretation on the behavior of those we don’t particularly like. We do this to reinforce our original perceptions. It is easier to twist the information we have to fit our pre-existing perceptions rather than recognize that the perceptions were inaccurate and should be adjusted. It is uncomfortable to discover our opinions have been wrong.
Humans tend to attribute their own unhelpful behaviors to external influences, like being bad-tempered because the car wouldn’t start or the kids were misbehaving. They also tend to attribute other people’s unhelpful behaviors to internal influences, like personality or character (eg they’re just a bad-tempered kind of person). Psychologists call this the ‘fundamental attribution error’. On the one hand, it can lead us to jump to unhelpful conclusions about others’ behavior and accuse them unjustly. On the other hand, it can blind us to our own personal responsibility for contributing to unhelpful situations.
People have very strong emotional reactions to situations where they feel they are being judged. Negative feedback, especially when intentions were positive, can be extremely hurtful. Feedback that is not balanced and delivered with respect for the person’s dignity will destroy trust and result in defensive behavior and withdrawal from the relationship. The best prevention tactics here are to encourage the employee to reflect on their own performance and ensure that positive feedback is given whenever it is merited.
Self-management in Performance Evaluation
Understand successful and unsuccessful performance evaluation conversations. Reflect on how you define for yourself what a successful performance evaluation conversation looks like. Ensure your definition is not unrealistic. It doesn’t have to go perfectly to be effective. You may not feel 100% comfortable with the outcome, but it may still have been effective. A helpful measure of success is whether the employee is closer to being on track by the end of the conversation than s/he was at the beginning. Supervisors don’t become brilliant are conducting performance evaluation conversations overnight. It takes practice and mistakes to learn and develop confidence.
Even when you do everything right, you may not get a positive outcome because your influence is only one half of the dynamic. You only have responsibility for your own input to the situation. You cannot control how the employee will respond. Applying the suggestions in this guide will help maximize the extent to which you get good outcomes from review conversations and minimize the extent to which your handling of them contributes to poor outcomes, but there is no magic wand. Expect things to be uncomfortable sometimes and don’t interpret this as poor performance on your part. It happens and things may get messy as a result, but this can usually be sorted out, with time, effort and appropriate support from your own manager, HR and/or the union.
If you are not confident conducting performance evaluation conversations, chances are they cause fairly high levels of anxiety and can pre-occupy your thoughts to an unhelpful extent. Make sure your expectations are realistic and seek out appropriate training, support and coaching from your manager, from HR if you have particular concerns about a specific employee, and from training. Try not to let your anxieties lead you to expect the worst as this may become self-fulfilling. Follow the tips in this guide and use each performance evaluation conversation as a learning experience.