Our CEO review panel gives employee-grading software high marks

By Doug Stewart

Employee appraisals are like sit-ups or flossing. "They're the necessity from hell," says Mary Jo Lyons, president of Bio-Reg Associates, a medical-technology consulting firm in Laurel, Md. Several new software packages automate the drudgery and, the publishers claim, make users better managers. We asked Lyons and two other small-business CEOs to evaluate three popular packages: Employee Appraiser, Performance Now!, and Avantos Review Writer.

The programs work similarly. Each asks the user to rate an employee in several job areas: job knowledge, interpersonal skills, customer focus, and so on. In Review Writer and Performance Now!, after the user selects an area, he or she is presented with a one-to-five scale for rating an employee's performance. In Employee Appraiser the manager uses a pull-down menu to choose from a list of terse overall comments ranging from effusive to damning. Each of the three programs then weaves those comments into a coherent, personalized written review.

Pop-up advice windows in each package provide short but comprehensive tutorials on human resources. At each step during the review-building process, a manager can click on tips for handling employees' defensive reactions to criticism, or insert words of canned wisdom to an employee who needs to improve, say, his or her public-speaking skills.

Rick Levin, president of Kelley-Clarke Inc., a food brokerage in Bellevue, Wash., liked Employee Appraiser. He can rate the initiative of his 90 employees from "has drive and persistence" to "doesn't take action." Clicking on either of those phrases calls up a more literary rendition; the first elicits: "So-and-so displays unusual drive and perseverance. He is very capable of assessing a situation and taking independent action when conditions require it."

"It's the best thing since word processing," Levin says. "You can take that language verbatim, as if you'd written it yourself."

Is that lazy? Consider the traditional alternative: quick, sometimes wordless ratings of employees on a grid with a five-point scale, grade-school style. "I've been reviewed that way in earlier jobs," says Levin. "You ask, 'What the hell did he mean by "Dependability is a three-plus?"' With this software, you talk in plain English."

Corley Phillips thinks the English isn't so plain. Is "promotes mutual respect" better than "considerate of others"? Phillips, president and CEO of Manzanita Software, an accounting-software publisher in Roseville, Calif., preferred the simpler, five-point scale of Performance Now!, and he thinks his 81 employees would prefer it, too. He also likes the way Performance Now! warns him when his selections seem inconsistent.

Phillips also praised Review Writer, the latest product from the maker of ManagePro, a popular software package that helps users manage people and goals more systematically. "If you're a ManagePro user and you're doing a lot of goal setting," says Phillips, "you'd probably prefer Review Writer." Mary Jo Lyons did. With Review Writer she can import specific comments from her ManagePro files into reviews of her 15 employees.

Each of the three review programs prompts users to support both praise and criticism with examples, and each encourages the managers to enter specifics about their employees during the long stretches between reviews. In an office using ManagePro, many of those remarks are already on-line.

Aside from that advantage, Lyons might have favored Performance Now! "You can find your way around its interface much quicker," she says, "and the help screens explain the options better. If you're using Review Writer and you're not familiar with ManagePro and the icons it uses, you have to spend more time with the manual." Still, she says, Review Writer is the most flexible of the three -- there's more to learn, but once you master it, there are more options to choose from.

All three CEOs say their computer-assisted reviews are more constructive, more thorough, and more accurate than traditional reviews. "When you're running a small business, you've got so many important things to be working on that giving formal feedback to somebody you work with closely seems unnecessary," Corley Phillips says. "You tell yourself, 'He knows this stuff. Why do I have to write it down?' Yet you know you should be doing it. With a tool like this, in five minutes I can have a rough draft of a review, and then I can fine-tune it."

Plus, reviews written on employee-appraisal software are probably more legally defensible than the old-fashioned kind. Each package has a built-in legal checker that alerts managers to the danger of using words like young, pretty, or stressful, or mentioning an employee's age or appearance. The products encourage fairness, too. If one manager plays it safe by handing out all B's and C's and another marks tougher, then some groups can suffer disproportionately if layoffs occur -- a matter in which the courts take interest. Software calibrates the scales.

And all three managers agree that writing reviews takes less time -- an hour or an hour and a half per review, perhaps, instead of three or four. Phillips adds, "It's easy to get started on reviews now that I actually finish them."

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Doug Stewart is a freelance writer who often writes about new technology.

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The Appraisal Software
Employee Appraiser 2.0 $129 from Austin-Hayne, Redwood City, Calif., 800-809-9920

Performance Now! 1.0 $129 from Knowledgepoint, Petaluma, Calif., 800-727-1133

Avantos Review Writer, 1.0 $129 from Avantos Performance Systems, Emeryville, Calif., 800-282-6867

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The Review Panel
Rick Levin

Kelley-Clarke Inc.

Bellevue, Wash.

Mary Jo Lyons

Bio-Reg Associates

Laurel, Md.

Corley Phillips

Manzanita Software

Roseville, Calif. n

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