The best performance evaluation procedures embrace three crucial goals and three specific practices. Before diving in, we should address the proverbial elephant in the room. When someone seeks my professional guidance on implementing or modifying their employee evaluation procedures, the often felt but unspoken concern driving their circumspection is increasing the risk of meritless employment litigation. Indeed, mitigating that risk can be likened to elephant training. Elephant trainers start early using modest restraints when the animals are young and as the elephants grow stronger, they will not break their ropes.
As with elephants, risk has a formative stage. The goals and practices discussed here help establish and maintain a foundation of trust and respect that although invisible, forges the strongest deterrent against the threat of meritless litigation. Although the structure of the American justice system does not allow for the complete elimination of risk, it can be substantially mitigated.
Ultimately the health, strength, and weaknesses of an organization lie within the individual minds and the organizational mindset of its employees. So, ground zero for both constructive growth and risk mitigation share the same space. These goals and practices discussed here are designed to purposefully align employee brain power to the collective advancement of the organization while simultaneously driving down the real risks every employer faces.
START WITH THESE THREE GOALS
A successful performance evaluation begins with a clear understanding and articulation of the reasons for its implementation. I may not know you, the particulars of your industry, or the current financial health of your organization. Nevertheless, I can assure you that certain objectives remain universally applicable in this context: fostering business growth, promoting employee development, and minimizing risk. Once you translate these objectives to align with your organization’s specific dynamics, they serve as guiding principles for developing communications and procedures in your performance evaluation process.
- Foster Business Growth: Identify Your Organization’s Most Important Metric and set a measurable goal to improve it.
An employee performance evaluation is, at its core, a tool for constructive correction and growth. Regardless of the industry, commercial or governmental, profit or nonprofit, every organization must define its growth metric (or metrics). Begin with the most important metric for your business and tailor your employee evaluation to align with awareness and improvement of that metric. Your organization may have more than one such metric. However, all organizations have at least one. If there are others, then set goals for them as well, but try to keep the list to three or less for the sake of clarity and effectiveness.
Keep in mind that you will share these goals with your employees. While improving the metrics underlying the goals are inherently beneficial, the act of sharing these objectives is where openness and transparency initiate the construction and strengthening of a foundation of trust within the employment relationship.
2. Promote Employee Development: Identify the skills and proficiencies in your employees that contribute to the objective identified above and develop methods for assessing and enhancing those capabilities.
Once the critical goals of the organization have been set, take time to evaluate how specific capabilities of your employees contribute to the advancement of those goals. Develop a list of capabilities that actively support the organizational goals you listed in the first step. This list can be as long or as short as the situation calls for. An easily management list of capabilities ranges up to eight, but you may choose to identify more or less depending on your organization’s specific goals.
The employer should consistently communicate to the employee about what is being assessed and the assessment methods. The “why” behind the assessment lies in the goals previously established for the organization. In essence, an employee evaluation should not come as a surprise. After pinpointing the capabilities that contribute to organizational growth, it’s important to explicitly outline this for the employee. Employees value understanding the measurement criteria and the implicit recognition that each individual contributes to the advancement of the organization.
Take a moment to recall the experience of taking an exam during your school days. The classroom smelled of fresh ground wood and lead on those days. You could probably hear the furtive sounds of the pencil sharpener grinding in the background as the last few students prepared their tools prior to the test. The teacher stands and announces, “close your books and clear your desk” as she walks towards the first row of desks with a stack of freshly printed tests in her arms. Perhaps you felt a gush of restlessness, anxiety, or maybe even panic pulse through your chest as you take a deep breath to steady your mind. If your employee evaluation provokes a similar anxiety from your employees, then you are doing something wrong.
Once you have identified the capabilities and how they will be assessed, the employer should seek means of supporting or enhancing those capabilities. For example, if your employee is a warehousing associate and you have identified accurately processing orders as a capability that supports the organization’s goals, then legibility improvements on labelling may be a suitable support or enhancement measure. However, one of the best sources for potential enhancement measures will be your employees.
3. Reduce the Risk of Meritless Litigation.
The most common on-the-job injury across all industries in the United States is hurt feelings. By expanding on the fundamental organizational objectives and integrating the distinct, measurable competencies and capabilities of employees that contribute to the advancement of those goals, the employer eliminates the negative associations often associated with employee assessments that are not grounded in the growth of clear organizational objectives. The primary benefit of this approach is readily apparent. However, the secondary effect may not be so obvious. Where an employer can provide an employee with a vision for the growth of the organizational objectives, it not only encourages buy-in by that employee, but it also fosters a culture of unity of purpose that reduces the alienation that often precedes many lawsuits that are cloaked in the guise of legal claims but that are actually rooted in hurt feelings.
DEPLOY THESE THREE PRACTICES
- Thoughtfully Prepare.
First, if you have not already done so, start by identifying and expressing the organizational objectives and critical competencies discussed above. This step forms the preamble to the performance evaluation and demonstrates your commitment to a thoughtful and purposeful evaluation process.
Create an agenda for the evaluation meeting. The agenda should explicitly include the communication of organizational goals and the critical capabilities that foster the advancement of those goals, how those skills and proficiencies have been assessed, and how those capabilities will be measured in the future.
At this point, it is important to determine whether there are other specific functions the performance evaluation will fulfill. For example, some employers use the performance evaluation as an opportunity to discuss performance incentives, raises, or promotions. I recommend reserving these topics for their own meetings, but the complexity of the employee’s role or the specifics of your situation may suggest that these discussions be included with the performance evaluation. An organized agenda not only guides the conversation but also provides a roadmap for both you and the employee, fostering a sense of transparency and fairness.
If possible, provide the employee with the agenda in advance of the performance evaluation meeting. This allows the employee to mentally prepare and come to the meeting with a focused mindset. Providing advance notice of the agenda items enables a more productive discussion and reinforces the organization’s commitment to a transparent and fair evaluation process. Be clear and precise in your communication. Clearly articulate the expectations for the evaluation meeting, emphasizing that it is a constructive dialogue aimed at growth and development – both for the organization and the employee.
Prior to the meeting, task the employee to prepare as well. Encourage them to reflect on their performance in light of the organizational goals and individual competencies. Provide a structured format to help guide and encourage the employee’s input. Give them an opportunity to document their achievements, challenges, and areas for improvement. This proactive involvement not only empowers the employee but also contributes to a more meaningful and collaborative evaluation process.
Include an agenda item for the employer and the employee to reflect on the past period and to discuss the road ahead. Emphasize the collaborative nature of this discussion, reinforcing the idea that the evaluation is not a one-time event but a continuous process of growth and development. By taking these thought-provoking preparatory actions, you set the stage for a performance evaluation meeting that is not only constructive and goal-oriented but also fosters a positive and collaborative employer-employee relationship.
2. Empower Dialogue.
While it may seem obvious, a surprising number of employers complete performance evaluations without ever gaining meaningful feedback from the employee. A quick example illustrates the magnitude of this blind spot. Picture a close friend or loved one who, despite years of interaction, can only receive information but cannot express any thoughts, ideas, or emotions externally. Imagine the profound lack of understanding you would have about that person and, intriguingly, about your relationship with that person.
Two-way communication is the linchpin for trust, higher morale, and robust buy-in to the organization’s mission. Just as you wouldn’t accept a one-sided relationship with a friend, an employee evaluation should not be a monologue. Structure your evaluation to not only deliver crucial insights but also to foster the reciprocal exchange of ideas. Encourage the employees to share their perspectives on the business and suggest ways they can be better supported. This open dialogue not only strengthens the employer-employee relationship but also contributes to a more enriching and collaborative work environment.
Ensure your evaluation process goes beyond superficial conversations. Reject the temptation to gaslight, redefine, or minimize issues identified by the employee. Such practices are not only highly offensive but also completely shut down communication. Instead, adopt a receptive stance—listen, understand, and process without being prepared to disagree, discount, or dismiss. More information, not less, furthers comprehensive understanding.
Emphasize that the evaluation is a collaborative effort aimed at enhancing both individual and organizational success. Open the floor for honest and transparent communication, assuring the employee that their input is not only valued but crucial for mutual growth. By adhering to these principles, you not only build a foundation of trust and respect but also create an environment where communication flourishes, benefiting both the individual and the organization.
3. Preserve the Purpose.
Avoid converting the assessment into anything resembling a disciplinary meeting and steer clear of disciplinary undertones. Resist the temptation to delve into overt discussions about disciplinary matters; instead, create a safe communication zone that encourages open dialogue.
Save any disciplinary discussions for a different meeting, as intertwining these with performance evaluations can blur the lines and hinder the effectiveness of both processes. It might seem counterintuitive, but maintaining a distinct boundary between evaluation and disciplinary conversations is crucial for fostering a constructive and growth-oriented atmosphere.
This is not the time to issue demerits or reprimands. Rather, focus on the assessment of skills and aptitudes identified for measurement. Embrace a process-oriented approach, where the emphasis is on evaluating the growth or non-growth of specific capabilities. If challenges or areas for improvement arise, view them through the lens of opportunities for development rather than punitive measures.
If you find yourself using evaluations to address issues or considering them as a tool for determining bonuses and raises, it’s time to reconsider your approach. Moving forward, separate compensation-related discussions into dedicated meetings or a distinct assessment process. This separation ensures that the evaluation remains a focused and constructive platform for discussing growth, while also preserving the integrity of other personnel management processes. By doing so, you not only uphold the purpose of evaluations but also create an environment conducive to honest communication and continuous improvement.
The benefits gained through collaborative and goal-focused performance evaluations overshadow the ancillary, yet still important goal of risk mitigation. These procedures not only allow employers to identify and advance organizational growth goals but also promote the development of essential skills within employees. Thoughtful preparation optimizes execution, while open dialogue ensures both employers and employees derive maximum value from the process. By preserving the purpose, avoiding disciplinary tones, and emphasizing growth, evaluations become transformative dialogues. By aligning these goals with the practices discussed above, organizations orchestrate success, help insulate themselves from risk, and transform evaluations into catalysts for unity, trust, and ongoing growth in the workplace.