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National Association of Counties • Washington, D.C.      Vol. 35, No. 2 • January 27, 2003

The H.R. Doctor Is In

The “Dreaded” Performance Evaluation

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So, the day has come! You’ve put it off as long as possible. “I’ll do it next week.” “Maybe after I return from vacation … ” “Right after the holidays … ”

You have fretted about it and whined about it and deferred and delayed it. Am I speaking about the upcoming dental appointment? About doing your taxes? About beginning the exercise program? No, the HR Doctor is talking about preparing the performance evaluations, which are now overdue for those employees who report to you.

Why is performance evaluation regarded as such an ominous or frustrating chore? Why do we spend more time thinking of ways to avoid it than we would have actually spent preparing the evaluations? Why do we regard doing this as just about as much fun as being the guest of honor at a training program for IRS agents?

In reality, the performance evaluation can be among the most important activities for any public administrator. As you read this article, imagine that listening in through the door to your office, or the opening to your cubicle, are all the subordinates who look to you for leadership, guidance and counseling.

Every human being from our beautiful HR daughters, Elyse and Rachel, to our aging parents and all of us in between ask some fundamental questions regularly throughout our lives. “How am I doing?” “Am I OK?” The questions themselves are very important and basic to our humanity. However, even more important is providing feedback and answers.

Providing that feedback should be regarded as the primary purpose of performance evaluations. Think of the evaluation form as a global positioning system (GPS) device given to a lost hiker in the wilderness. The GPS helps you know where you are, helps you measure the progress of your journey, and establishes “way points” that can guide you to the goal you wish to reach. It also helps you to avoid quicksand, minefields or other hazards.

Yes, some of America’s 600,000 or 700,000 attorneys will also point out that performance evaluations represent the agency’s defensive documentation of behavior and performance, creating the public records upon which human resources actions, such as suspensions or terminations, are based. They are of course, absolutely right. However, if the only objective in an agency’s evaluation system is to create the document itself, the system is very flawed and may actually do a disservice to the organization.

On a great many occasions, the HR Doctor has been visited by some director or elected official, such as the sheriff or clerk of the courts, who comes in frustrated and annoyed about the terrible performance and bad attitude of “Godzilla the employee.” “Godzilla must be terminated! He is making his supervisor and his coworkers crazy. It’s been going on for years!”

After the HR Doctor serves his guest some Earl Grey tea with honey as a calming device, he takes a history and learns about how miserable Godzilla is behaving, and the effects of that behavior on others. The next thing that happens is a call to the wonderful people in charge of the personnel files to bring Godzilla’s file into the office for review. What follows happens all too often.

The file clerk carefully brings the file to the head of HR. The clerk is wearing a back brace because the file is so thick that a hernia could result if staff members violate the training guidance provided by risk management in lifting heavy objects. A quick perusal of the file reflects page after page of check-the-boxes evaluations with little or no comments and an overall rating of satisfactory each year for many years. By the way, guess who signed most of Godzilla’s evaluations? The answer is of course the frustrated manager sitting with the HR Doctor.

If Godzilla has really been acting out, and if the evaluations had been used properly, the manager would not be frustrated now. The very late corrective action would not be nearly as difficult as it now is.

Performance evaluations that lack ethical honesty in describing behavior and performance create problems for the agency, the employee, and the supervisor. A poorly performing employee who receives an acceptable or better-than-acceptable evaluation, with no corrective action or coaching noted, is enabled to do even worse in the coming year.

The message delivered to the employee is that this kind of behavior is tolerated and, in fact, encouraged by agency inaction or inertia. This is the breeding ground for workplace violence, sexual harassment, race and gender discrimination and more.

This is the breeding ground for failed performances of the whole work unit and poor morale. Allowing this to happen is the marker of a supervisor who should be encouraged to learn how to supervise effectively or be demoted to the more comfortable world of less responsibility and less reward.

There is another point that is critical but often neglected in viewing the value of a performance evaluation. It represents the great chance to recognize, appreciate and praise! In our lives, at home and at work, we do not spend enough time using phrases like “thank you,” “I appreciate your help” or “your work makes a big difference here!”

Most public employees work hard and effectively, often under trying circumstances. As an old country song says, they “make the best of a bad situation.” The evaluation is an opportunity for management to provide these strong performing employees with a document they can take home and show to their children and spouses, or significant others with pride.

We often lose sight of that opportunity by our “check the box” silence in the documents, and by the minimum amount of time we spend thinking about how valuable our colleagues are to our own success.

If the HR Doctor could deliver one message to supervisors about evaluations, it would be the importance of using this tool to recognize and encourage instead of inducing clinical depression in the readers.

The design of the form and the process itself often provide ample excuses for why evaluations may be chronically late and done in the most superficial manner.

Typically, evaluations methodologies are either trait-based or behavioral. Trait-based evaluations generally use some form of checklist in which constructs such as honesty, initiative, and dependability are rated on a scale, such as 1–5. The points are added up and masked by the science of mathematics. The person is given a numerical rating. The same form and same characteristics or traits may be used for an entry-level clerical employee, a skilled trade carpenter or plumber, as well as a professional planner, physician, nurse or librarian. In theory, this kind of form is faster and it takes up less space in a personnel file.

The behavioral model looks at functions that occur at work, such as how well the employee interacts with members of the public, how well the person handles emergency calls, or whether the computer glitches are quickly resolved by the information technology employee. Behavioral evaluations take more time and more space in the file. However, they are also more directly job related and defensible.

The difficulty is that the longer the form and the more complex the process, the more annoyed and “passive-aggressive” managers get about fulfilling their evaluation responsibilities. They spend only a few minutes a year on the process.

They often begrudge every one of those minutes instead of seizing the opportunity for a frank and collegial discussion with the people who depend on them for supervision and guidance. Then the completed form orbits around various offices through interoffice mail waiting to be initialed, signed, or stamped by other people, such as the supervisor’s manager, the department head, human resources and payroll.

When the whole process begins very late, the rest of these activities add further tardiness and great frustration for the employee and the struggling payroll staff, which is now embroiled in annoying retroactive calculations.

Recalling again that most employees perform effectively, the HR Doctor asserts that it is nothing short of professional malpractice to be chronologically and seriously late with evaluations, and then to not spend much time at all doing them. Otherwise spectacular managers, in terms of their personal experience and knowledge, can create and provoke frustration and anger among the people they rely on for support by simply appearing to be disinterested in this core interpersonal need for effective evaluations.

Admittedly, it is very difficult to make judgments about other human beings. Even if that is a prime responsibility in our own job descriptions. Nonetheless, late or poorly done evaluations are fundamentally disrespectful to people. It need not be this way! Evaluations can and should be a very meaningful, timely, and valuable part of being a great public administrator.

The HR Doctor hopes all of your boxes are checked!

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •

Making Evaluations Less Annoying
Here are some HR Doctor tips to make the process more effective and less annoying.

1. Make sure job descriptions in the organization are in a consistent format and are reviewed regularly to keep them up-to-date. There are many reasons why this is important — too many for this particular article. However, the job description is the core statement by the organization of what is essential about this job and what knowledge, skills and abilities are required. In other words, it is against this standard or benchmark that a person’s behavior and performance is judged. If the job descriptions are ancient artifacts or non-existent, there is a hole in the rest of the system that must be plugged!

2. The importance of evaluation and how it links to other management responsibilities, such as employee retention or correction should be stressed regularly to every supervisor through innovative training. Training that uses examples directly relevant to the manager’s life training, presented with humor and passion, is always the best kind. A person should leave the training clearly understanding the importance of the process to the organization and to the affected employees. The attendees should have no doubt about their own direct accountability for what has to be done.

3. Conduct a sample audit of performance evaluations in the organization to develop a sense of whether there is a chronic lateness problem and whether the evaluations are job-related and defensible. Use the results to reinforce the need for attention being paid to process improvement.

4. Start at the top! The county manager or director whose reputation is one of indifference or lack of caring about evaluations is not going to be a role model for improvement in this area, or frankly in other areas of organizational life. Begin at the top with a renewed commitment to on-time and defensible evaluations.

5. It is very likely that the organization’s evaluation system has not been reviewed and improved in a long time. Create an improvement review process that involves employees, managers, and some union representatives, if the organization is endowed with their presence. In other words, use the improvement process itself to spread understanding and awareness of the value of the system. Use facilitated focus groups to help make the improvements acceptable and realistic.

6. Consider some common questions appropriate for any evaluation —for an entry-level clerk or the county manager. These factors might include how effective the person is in representing the organization with clients and co-workers of all different ethnic groups and genders.

7. For managers and supervisors, consider common evaluation criteria such as, how well does this person serve as a mentor and coach to other employees? How well does the supervisor support the organization policies on critical incident management, such as workplace violence, harassment or discrimination? Ironically, another universal factor for all supervisors should be how well this person meets responsibilities for timely and job-related performance evaluations! Point to the future with some measurable goals to be achieved over the next year. Use the idea of "How many? By when?" in the course of goal setting.