Evaluating employees: Facts and fallacies

Monday, 5 December 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Festive season is round the corner. Year –end appraisal time has come. Is it an annual torture ritual or a treasure ritual? Is it happening objectively based on facts? Are there fallacies associated with it? Today’s column will have a detailed look at employee performance evaluation.

Essentials of EPE

Performance is all about delivering results, fulfilling expectations. A performance management system of an organization should answer what, why and how aspects of organizational performance.  My focus today is on employee performance, particularly, on how it is evaluated. Employee performance evaluation (EPE) can be a treasure or a torture based on a variety of contributing factors. They can be institutional as well as individual. Performance oriented culture where employees are clearly aware of what they are supposed to do in order to achieve organizational objectives, is one such example.

“Are you satisfied with your performance evaluation?” I have been posting this question to numerous groups representing a wide cross-section of Sri Lankan business community. The majority give the diplomatic answer of “to some extent”. According to research done by Larson and Callahan (1990), 65 percent of the companies are dissatisfied with their performance management system. Based on much other recent research, the worldwide situation with this regard has not changed much.

What could be possible reasons? Let me propose five fallacies of EPE that would address the key issues.

Form filling vs. fact finding

Rather sadly, EPE has become a form filling ritual in some of the organizations. I have personally seen how some senior administrators giving blank sheets for their subordinates to sign saying that “this will help you to get your increment”. The vital link between EPE and organizational performance is alarmingly lacking.

In refuting this fallacy, what should happen is the proper fact finding. The appraiser should have a clear understanding about the employee’s actual performance, based on factual evidence. It cannot be done overnight unless a manager carefully observes and take notes throughout the year.  

Fast judgment vs. fare assessment

Everyone is pressed for time. Managers resort to rush through a large pile of appraisals and inevitably giving a fast judgment. Why it is not OK in most of the cases is that, an over-reliance on your memory, without considering the strengths and shortcomings of the individual in detail. It may be argued as a case for efficiency, but effectiveness in achieving the expected results is far more important.

Therefore, the only way to overcome this fallacy is to have a fare assessment. That demands the investment of your time. It is doing justice to someone’s future by accurately assessing the past performance.  

Fun praise vs. focal points

There is a temptation among managers to be popular. They resist giving bad news or negative feedback to their subordinates. I recall once, a Production Manager telling a HR professional that he will sign and deliver the increment letter, but the warning letters or disciplinary letters should be signed by HR. The danger of this approach is that a manager might divert to the extreme of giving “fun praise”.

According to Jack Welsh, the biggest injustice against an employee is the deprivation of his/her right to know how exactly he/she is performing. We have the typical Asian culture emerging here. Rather than telling upfront, if someone is underperforming, we tend to say, “not bad”, “you are OK”, “do not worry” etc. The employee is getting a false signal that he/she is doing well, which might not be the reality.

One sure cure to move away from this fallacy is to have focal points for performance discussion.  Your feedback to the team member should be focused on specific behavioral aspects, backed by real examples.

False opinion vs. full observation

In management, we have a high regard to MBO approach which means “management by objectives”. Unfortunately, we have another MBO in Sri Lanka. That is “management by opinions”. We tend to jump into conclusions based on what someone has told us about a particular individual, without proper fact finding.

One reason for such tendency could be the lack of time for a superior to observe his/ her team members and assess how they are going ahead in achieving their objectives. Instead, trusting the “grape wine” too much, or relying on others input on an individual will often lead to false opinion. Why this is damaging, is that the respective individual is not getting an opportunity to share his/her side of the story.

In overcoming this fallacy, the only way possible is the regular observation. Maintaining a log book where you note down the plusses and minuses with respect to the behaviors of your team mates. It can be in soft copy involving any good program or a traditional note book.

Futile accusation vs. frank discussion

This is another common issue with managers lacking empathy. Reaching one sided judgments without looking at both sides of an issue. Take a behavioral issue such as indiscipline for an example. The supervisor can make a firm accusation that the particular team member is not following his instructions. Instead, having a frank discussion and giving specific feedback will heal the wounds.

A frank discussion will pave way to a genuine two-way process in ironing out differences between a team leader and a team member. It should be an integral part of the EPE. Fallacy of futile accusation can be nullified only by engaging in such a process. Rather than cluttering your mind with negative perceptions of an employee, going with an open mind and verifying the doubts through a discussion is the tested and proven method for performance enhancement.

Forward Path beyond Five Fs

The above five fallacies of EPE are interrelated and influence an individual to take an incorrect decision about another individual. That’s where institutional mechanisms can add value. Developing the capabilities of conducting EPE through training is one such example. Ensuring transparency of the EPE process, with HR department acting as an auditor is another possible initiative. In this context, concerns of appraises as well as appraisers are of importance.

Concerns of Appraisees

In some cases, EPE has earned a negative reputation as the “annual torture ritual”. As usual, appraises might develop a genuine fear about the whole process. They might have concerns of the content and conduct of the EPE. Some concerns can be listed as follows:

  •  Will my superior be fair?

Will my superior recall my achievements and good points or will he/she be guided by my failing and failings and shortcomings only?

  •  Does my superior know me sufficiently?
  •  What does my superior expect from me?
  •  What are the standards of my superior?
  •  The above concerns should be taken into account in training the appraisers on how to conduct a proper EPE.

Concerns of Appraisers

As much as appraises have their concerns, the appraisers also can have their genuine concerns. That is the other side of the coin. Given below are some of them.

  •  Do I know the person sufficiently to be able to give my   assessment of him / her?
  •  If I rate him /her the way I think I should, what will be its influence on his / her relations with me and on his / her performance in future?
  •  If I rate him / her the way I think I should, what will be its effect on my relations with the other team members?
  •  Will I be able to be objective in view of pressures from   peers, superiors, unions etc.?

 How will my leader view the appraisal I make and how will that influence the way he /she appraises me?

Having discussed concerns of both appraisers and appraises, the next logical step would be to see how we can make the EPE process more meaningful.

Ten Success Tips:

Based on global best-practices and local realities, several success tips can be identified, making the EPE better. Ten such tips are discussed here.

Create a relaxed atmosphere.

Ideally, both appraiser and appraisee should sit next to each other in a round table arrangement. The symbolic presence of equality can then be easily maintained.  

State the objectives of clearly.

EPE should not be just a chit chat. At the outset, the team leader should mention why they are there and for what purpose.

Praise for work well done.

Stating with a positive note ensures continuity. Also, it creates a pleasant path to tackle more difficult issues later.

Show areas for improvement.

The best way is to give specific examples. The challenge for the appraiser is to remember them, preferably going though notes made throughout the year.

Probe when necessary.

There are instances where the appraisee will come out with flimsy excuses as to why a particular target could not be achieved. It is the smartness of the appraiser of asking details and evidence so that the truth will emerge.

Ensure review of all key areas.

A typical EPE should contain assessment of objectives, evaluation of value-based behavior and a discussion on training needs. Some leaders have to tendency to focus more on the improvement areas without covering the entire process. Such a practice will create a negative experience for the appraisee

Encourage as much as possible.

A good EPE should have two-way communication. Sometimes, it can turn to be a sermon or a preaching by the leader. Instead, what is preferred is to allow the appraisee to present his/her side of the story.

Discuss training needs.

A training need tells us about a gap between expected level of performance and actual level. It is vital to bridge such a gap with appropriate training. Discussion of it only the first step. Ensuring that it is properly taking place, should be the logical sequel.

Set Action Plans.

EPE is not an end but a new beginning. Its continuation can be ensured by setting action plans by the team leader for the respective team member.  

End with positive note.

Overall, the EPE has to be a pleasant experience. The acid test of it is if an appraisee who got a lower rating can walk away with a higher motivation.

Forward Path

The above ten success tips are simple and practical, that address concerns of both appraisers and appraisees. Adhering to those tips is essentially being brilliant on basics. Such an approach will pave way for an improved and impactful EPE that will inevitably lead to higher organizational success. It is surely a case of facts defeating the fallacies with regards to evaluating employees.

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is a learner, teacher, trainer, researcher, writer and a thinker in the areas of Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour. He can be reached on ajantha@pim.lk.)

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