OWNER'S MANUAL

9 Ways to Ruin a Performance Review

It's that time of year again. What seems to be another chore to you is hugely important to your employees -- so don't blow it.
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Let me guess: You give your employees annual performance evaluations.  And, if you’re honest, you don’t enjoy them.

To the employee, an annual performance review is a big deal (especially if a raise might be involved.) To a business owner, especially one with a number of employees, filling out and delivering evaluations can feel more like a chore than an opportunity.

When you feel that way it’s easy to make mistakes—and ruin an employee’s enthusiasm, motivation, and overall performance.

Make sure you don’t make these common performance evaluation mistakes:

Raise issues you can’t back up with examples. Say you make a general statement about poor performance. Almost every employee will—justifiably—ask for specific examples to back up your statement. Never refer to any weakness or area for improvement without specific examples that back up your point. If you say, “I don’t feel you handle customer complaints as well as you should,” make sure you have at least two specific examples to share—that way you can also discuss how those situations should have been handled.

Answer questions you can’t answer. You may be in charge but you don’t know everything, and that’s okay. If you can’t answer a question, say so. Follow up later. And if you shouldn’t discuss a certain topic, don’t. The best employee evaluations are open and honest conversations, but it’s easy, without thinking, to disclose sensitive or confidential information about other employees or customers. Be totally honest and forthcoming about the employee’s performance, but remember: Anything else you say can and will be repeated later.

Talk about negative personality traits. No employees argue with positive comments about their personality. Say, “You have such a great attitude,” and the employee will smile and nod. Say, “You have such a poor attitude,” and you’ve focused on personality, not performance. If an employee does have a poor attitude, share specific examples of behaviors that cause you to feel that way. Always discuss behaviors, not negative personality traits.

Limit the focus to the last few months. Even if employees have accomplished wonderful things over the course of an entire year, it’s natural to only discuss what happened recently. When you only focus on the near-term employees can easily fall prey to the “my performance review is in a couple months so I better pick up the pace” syndrome. Take notes throughout the year and make sure all evaluations reflect the employee’s performance—especially positive performance—over the entire year.

Require self-evaluations. Employees who do a great job wonder why they need to evaluate themselves; shouldn’t you know they do a great job? Employees who do a poor job rarely rate themselves as poor; that can turn what could have been a constructive feedback session into an argument. Self-evaluations may sound empowering or inclusive but are almost always a waste of time.  If you want feedback, ask the employee for ways you can help them further develop their skills or career.

Make promises you can’t keep. A good performance evaluation assesses the past and looks to the future. So certainly share improvement or development plans, but keep in mind that when you say, “We can possibly train you in customer service,” the employee hears, “We will definitely train you in customer service.” Actively manage expectations. If you aren’t sure you can come through, either say nothing or be sure to emphasize that a potential opportunity is only a possibility… and if that opportunity won’t come through, let the employee know and explain why it didn’t work out. The employee may be disappointed but they won’t be left hanging.

Compare one employee to others. Comparisons are often unfair and could create unhealthy competition or resentment. Even if employees perform similar functions, always compare performance to standards or goals. If an employee is the least productive but does meet standards, discuss ways he or she can work to exceed standards.

Ask stupid questions. Evaluations shouldn’t be monologues, but don’t ask generic questions to try to spark a conversation. Also don’t ask for ideas to help your business improve. Save those for another time. Why? Performance reviews should be all about employees.  Ask if they’re having problems, need assistance, have the right tools to do their jobs job, etc. Ask how you can help them succeed. Save the small talk for another time.

Forget there was a previous review. Employees remember what you said last time, even if you don’t. Make sure you don’t use the same behavioral examples or discuss the same developmental opportunities. After you and the employee talk, take notes. When next year rolls around, review your notes and the previous appraisal. Evaluations are part of an overall improvement and development process, not a one-time event that is quickly forgotten. You might forget what you said, but the employee won’t—and shouldn’t.

IMAGE: Flickr/bpsusf
Last updated: Jan 10, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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