For his employees, says Jake Ferencz, performance evaluation should be a day of atonement in the workplace -- "their private Yom Kippur."
Ferencz, a Hasidic Jew to whom the analogy seems natural, is the owner of Superior Reproduction Systems, a $5-million photocopying and microfilming business in New York City. Tired of haggling over performance with his five shop supervisors, he decided to make it their problem instead of his. So he designed an eight-page form for them to fill out, full of such questions as "How would you classify your relations with your operators -- excellent, good, or poor? Please describe." and "Why do employees react the way you have described above?"
Putting the ball in the employee's court is an understandable response to the challenge of giving relevant performance reviews. It is also a risky move that can intensify an already tense affair. Asking people to grade themselves can turn discussions with supervisors into defensive face-offs -- the least favorable climate for constructive sessions.
Indeed, performance experts say that self-assessment programs are rarely appropriate. The exception is when they are used with top executives who can measure their performance against the specific goals to which they have been assigned, says James Borland, a vice-president with Drake Beam Morin, a consulting firm that recently conducted a survey of appraisal practices among more than 250 companies.
Andrew Grove, president and chief executive officer of Intel Corp. and author of High Output Management, has some particularly harsh words on the subject of self-assessment. "There is no substitute for a supervisor's comments made unaided, unprodded, or unprompted by an employee's," he said in a recent interview. "[Self-evaluation] is a way for managers to avoid bringing up difficult topics. It's a cop-out." (Intel's system -- among the most common used in business -- requires managers to assess their subordinates in writing, then discuss these written comments with the people involved.)
But what if you need employees' input to evaluate them properly? What if you don't know how your people actually spend their time -- or where their interests and talents really lie?
At Lockheed DataPlan Inc., in Los Gatos, Calif., revelations about people's jobs frequently turn up at annual review sessions. In fact, its evaluation method was deliberately designed to produce such surprises. The company, an $8.2-million subsidiary of Lockheed Corp., has a system that strikes the tricky balance between making employee comments part of the reviews and still holding managers responsible for the ratings.
Lockheed DataPlan's annual reviews begin with written statements by employees that describe in detail the three or four most important elements of their jobs. Managers use these descriptions as the takeoff for the evaluations, grading employees from A to C in each of the areas selected and remarking on the high and low points. The review form also allows room for workers to describe job-related activities or courses they have taken, giving managers a chance to capitalize on employee skills they might not have known about otherwise. So as not to lessen the impact of the comments, money is not discussed at the sessions, but the ratings are tied to raises that are awarded a few months later.
Roberta Clark's hidden talents played a significant role in her review. As payroll clerk, her main duties are preparing paychecks for the company's 100 employees, recording accounts-receivable invoices, and overseeing the employee savings plan. But she also serves on an internal morale-boosting committee, and last spring she co-chaired the company's savings-bond drive.
"I got a new supervisor this year who knew what my job was, but he didn't know how many reports I have to write," says Clark, referring to the filing of weekly, monthly, and annual documents that come with the payroll territory. He was also unaware of the scope of her extracurricular activities. Learning about them in the review, he suggested that Clark's goals might be met by finding a way to be more involved with people than she was at present. "He suggested it in a caring way," she says. "I didn't feel threatened at all. He felt I was doing a good job, and he gave me an A for the payroll."
Such sessions are often eye-openers for new managers, says the program's architect, human resources director Richard Jess (who modified it from the parent company's plan). But discovering unknown skills is only part of the picture.
Each department at Lockheed DataPlan works in concert with the company's executive committee to define its goals, and the challenge for managers is to steer their departments in the direction of these specific objectives. The employee-review forms help by shaking out any confusion over job duties. If a worker emphasizes an aspect of his or her work that the boss considers a low priority, the boss has a perfect opportunity to redirect the employee's efforts.
When Tom Walsh was customer service department manager, for example, his staff was unaware that management placed top priority on service to the customer. Instead, his employees emphasized quality-assurance testing of the management information systems software that Lockheed DataPlan sells. When the word about "service first" came down, Walsh began to "refine . . . what the employees were writing" in their job descriptions, in some cases asking for revisions before the review process continued.
To Walsh, the strength of the system lies in the flexibility it gives him as a manager. Taking both his own perceptions and the stated preferences of his staff into account, he "can require different output based on individuals' pluses and minuses." In this case, that meant assigning people with writing ability the job of producing user manuals and allowing those with good telephone skills to deal directly with customers.
Despite the carefully limited nature of employee input, some managers suggest that their workers pencil in their own assessments prior to the review. Human resources director Jess discourages any tendency toward self-evaluations, however, suggesting that they only detract from the objectivity a boss can offer. The format "is designed to be participative," Jess says, but "the supervisor does the evaluating." Readily admitting to flaws in his review program, he adds that, "I don't think a good evaluation system exists. It's the nature of man."
But if it accomplishes nothing else, Jess points out, Lockheed's two-way-street approach forces supervisors to learn "what the hell their employees are doing." It is a good first step toward making the most of their skills.
The company that reads together, succeeds together, Judith Kaplan thought. Which is why she asked her employees to join her for pizza and Megatrends.
A minimegatrend statistic herself -- Kaplan started a service business and moved it from New York to Florida, two of the directions for the 1980s cited in John Naisbitt's best-selling book -- she was obviously a believer. And she wanted no less from her staff. Her theory: "If you understand the big picture, it shouldn't be hard to improve personally."
So last July, Kaplan invited the whole gang from Action Packets Inc. (a wholesale supplier of gifts, books, and novelty items to public museums and employee gift shops on National Aeronautics and Space Administration bases) over to her Ocala, Fla., house. "I had to do some armtwisting to get them to come," she admits. "I told them, 'I really expect you to do this."
Initially skeptical, most employees stayed away the first few times. But as word spread, more joined the biweekly discussions until 80% attendance became normal. Each session lasts a couple of hours and focuses on one chapter of the book being studied, with employees taking turns moderating. "There really is no format," Kaplan says. "We relate the book to what's happening in the company." After Megatrends, they started on (what else?) In Search of Excellence. Next came A Whack on the Side of the Head, by Roger von Oech, the self-described creativity guru of Silicon Valley. Kaplan describes Whack as "mind expanding."
Besides raising the staff's global consciousness, Kaplan's literary pizza fests also seem to be erasing interdepartmental confusion. Says John Carr, an account executive: "You can't think of these meetings as book-study groups. They are really a springboard for other things."
Among them, he says, is a pronounced emphasis on customer service. During one meeting, an exchange between sales and warehouse personnel resulted in a new shipping policy. Each customer order now includes a personal note from the packer, with an invitation to call if anything is amiss.
When it came out that employees had little idea of what went on in other departments, they arranged to give one another tours. Carr says that knowing the layout of the warehouse enables him to write orders matching the arrangement of shelved items, making assembling the order easier for the packer.
Some workers are less enthusiastic. "I don't believe in what they call 'carrots," says one who stays away. "The pressure to attend is done in a 'United Way' of saying you will attend and if you don't you're a louse."
But for her part, Judith Kaplan is delighted. "What we're trying to do is make people improve and meet the changes that are going on." If they do, she points out, they will do better at Action Packets -- and "that means they are more marketable outside of here, too."