Staff Reviews That Work

Staff performance reviews enjoy near-universal unpopularity—dreaded by employer and employee alike. For the employer, reviews feel like meaningless busywork, something you are expected to do but which never really seems productive or useful. Many employers are also uncomfortable having to assess people and possibly deliver criticisms. For the employee, the process can be both punishing and embarrassing.

Staff reviewsSome avoid reviews altogether. In another common scenario, the responsible manager downloads a generic HR template online that contains only superficial review criteria like attitude and dress code, things that have little meaning and no direct relevance to the company in question. Or, to avoid conflict, the manager reviews the employee more favorably than what he or she really perceives. Either way, it means that even when reviews happen they seldom have the impact they should, i.e. move the company and the individuals who comprise it forward.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be like this. The staff review process can be a useful tool for everyone involved, helping to build a smooth-running business that is enjoyable to own and work for.

Reviews That Work.
First, tie staff reviews to job descriptions and any staff training you do so the items under review are directly relevant. Make the items specific. For example, rather than reviewing an item called Attitude, a concept too broad to be a useful starting point for a discussion, have an item called Willingness To Help Colleagues And Go Above And Beyond Where Needed. A detailed item like this gives you specific instances to refer to when assessing how an employee measures up.

Second, make feedback meaningful. The format of review feedback is often an undefined scale, for example 1–10. Say we know 10 is excellent and 1 is bad. That still leaves us without a definition of what it takes to be a 10 or any shared understanding of the numbers in-between. One employee might be proud of receiving an 8; another might see it as a rebuke. Neither knows what the 8 is meant to convey. Instead of vague scales, use rubrics.

A rubric is essentially a defined scale. Each number or rung on the scale is clearly spelled out.

How To Use Rubrics.
Make the scale short.

0–4, for example, rather than 1–10. This makes the rubrics easier to write and use, and leaves less room for haggling, misinterpretations, and so on.

Be specific.
People need to know exactly what you mean by a particular score and what is expected of them.

When writing rubrics, it is often helpful to start by creating a generic example. Something along the lines of:

4:    Exhibits complete mastery.
3:    Highly competent with some additional room for learning.
2:    Basic skills and competencies in place.
1:    Does not meet basic requirements.

Guided by this generic rubric, you are now ready to write rubrics for the individual employee’s points of review. Say a point of review is: Recognizes Tension On The Daycare Floor And Acts Proactively To Defuse Unsafe Situations And Avoid Incidents. That would translate into the following rubrics:

4:    Consistently reads overt and subtle body language and reacts early with appropriate measures to keep dogs out of conflict.
3:    Recognizes most body language and tensions, and responds in time to defuse tensions and avoid conflicts in most cases.
2:    Able to read obvious body language signals and respond in time to avoid conflict in those cases.
1:    Does not recognize enough body language to proactively respond to avoid conflict or may recognize body language but does not respond proactively.

Be prepared to share examples to back up your scores.
Name specific incidents and observations. Say you give an employee a score of 2 on the above rubric because you have seen this person miss subtle signs of resource guarding, making him or her unable to respond as quickly as is ideal. If at all possible, share specific incidents, like “The tiff between Fido and Spot over the pink tennis ball.”

Be as positive with feedback as possible.
Don’t focus exclusively on areas that need attention—give at least equal weight to things employees do well. And then be specific about areas for improvement, couching such suggestions in the context of the rubric. As in: “You are doing a great job noticing when chase and wrestle games are getting too heated and stepping in on those. What I’d like you to work on next to move from a 2 to a 3 is recognizing some of the more subtle signs dogs give each other when they feel possessive about a toy or another resource.”

Follow up with a specific plan for accomplishing this improvement.
For example, is there a staff training you would like the person to attend? Is there a DVD to watch or a book to read? Will you pair him or her up with a colleague who has these skills?

Set Goals On Day One.
Even the best employees cannot be expected to read minds. Don’t make it a mystery how to be the model employee; nobody should be left to guess. Give new employees the review points (in rubric form) the day you hire them, so they know exactly what is expected of them and what to strive for.

Get Employees Involved.
Self-assessment can be a powerful tool, worth incorporating into your review process. The potential gains:

1. Getting employees involved in the review process helps them better understand what they are being evaluated on and what you are looking for.

2. Employees who actively participate in the process are less likely to be taken aback by their scores, which means that conflict stemming from defensiveness and embarrassment is less likely.

3. If the rubrics are clear and well thought through, an employee’s perspective on his or her job performance is less likely to be far off yours. And if it is, you will have a clear sense of any areas in which perspective is out of whack or where expectations have not been clearly communicated before you go into the one-on-one review.

Give the employee the review and ask him to complete it before his scheduled review appointment and bring it with him. At the review, go point by point, asking the employee to share his self-score and to explain why he has scored himself this way. If your score matches, give any additional thoughts or examples to reinforce his. If not, tell the employee what you agree with in his self-analysis and explain why you have scored him differently, again using examples and specific incidents wherever possible. Avoid any negotiation. Your score IS the score – unless you realize there is a compelling reason to do so, do not change your score. If the employee’s score was higher than what you gave him, give specific examples and direction for how the score can be raised to the one the employee gave himself.

Be Goal-Oriented.
In addition to going over the rubric review points, use your staff review appointment to set concrete goals for each employee between now and the next review. Keep the goals to a limited number—something in the region of two or four, depending on the complexity of goals and length of review period. Be sure to define what success will look like. How will you and your employee know if the goals were met?

A non-concrete goal: Improve your understanding of dogs.
A concrete goal: Improve reading of canine body language, specifically recognizing signs of resource guarding.

In this instance, success would be quantifiably fewer incidents/tiffs on the playground.

Create an action plan with benchmarks and interim deadlines to make sure the work required to achieve the goals is not left to a mad dash right before the next review. Having progress meetings along the way re-ignites motivation for getting things done, shows support of employees and their development, and helps you catch early on if things are not moving along as hoped.

The first time you institute this goal program, start with simpler goals on a shorter time frame. For example, if you carry out reviews twice a year, make the goals quarterly. This is another great place to get your employees involved. Have them fill out a goal sheet in which they suggest areas for their own improvement or professional development. Have some ideas of your own prepared and decide with your employees which goals they will pursue this quarter. Make sure at least one of them comes from their own list and is of strong interest to them.

From here on out, the review process is made up of assessing goal success, revisiting your rubrics for the position in question, and setting the next quarter’s goals.

Everyone Wins.
A review process that includes collaborative goal setting and employee involvement is much less aversive and uncomfortable for both parties. It creates a greater sense of responsibility for one’s own job performance. And it allows you to be an effective manager and leader, rather than merely The Boss.