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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 32, No. 5 * March 20, 2000

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Mirrors Without Smoke

Broward County (Fla.) Human Services Director Phil Rosenberg leads a workshop on “When Employers and Managers Go Astray” March 5 at the Legislative Conference.

Most agencies recognize the importance of periodic employee evaluations – or at least they say they do. It is absolutely correct that performance evaluations represent an incredibly valuable tool for the agency and for the individual. However, this is true only when the process is done in a timely, job-related and thoughtful manner.

An essential role for all managers is to help employees know where they stand. Everyone of us asks ourselves, our families, our employers and others “How am I doing?” “Am I doing okay?” “What can I do better?” These are the kinds of questions an effective performance evaluation tool can answer. However, evaluations take time to complete in a meaningful way and, ironically, can cause trouble instead of improving the situation if they are not done with care. Here are some HR Doctor tips:

  • If your agency has an evaluation process, when was the last time it was reviewed? If the answer is “I don’t know” or “Review? What’s a review?” the time is right to consider appropriate changes.
  • Evaluations generally follow one of two models. One is a “trait-based” model. The other is “competency-based” or “behaviorally” based. The former presents a list of characteristics or traits which the agency feels are important for employee attention. Traits may include initiative, good attendance, honesty, effective supervision, public contact, co-worker relations, etc. These traits are then linked to some rating scale such as “1 through 5” or “excellent, satisfactory, needs improvement, unsatisfactory.” The manager’s role is then to judge each employee with regard to each trait on the rating scale. An overall “bottom line” rating is also required.
  • The trait-based model has more problems than benefits. One of the benefits is that it is usually rather fast to complete and rather uncomplicated. This is an important consideration because the simpler the process, the more likely it is that managers and supervisors will use in a timely manner. However, the trait-based approach is very subjective. Words like “honesty” or “initiative” are not well defined and the managers lack guidance on how to use the rating scales in relation to the traits. A vague system is a system open to charges of abuse, favoritism, discrimination, etc. The vague system does not create clear opportunities for managers to answer the basic question of “How am I doing?”
  • The competency-based model answers this question in a more thoughtful and defensible manner. The agency managers begin by reviewing job descriptions, which should be updated anyway.

Having a sound and well-maintained job classification plan is an essential core HR function. Job descriptions should be thought of as the centerpiece around which other HR practices “orbit.” These practices include salary setting, hiring systems, grievance handling, employee development, and ... performance evaluations. Drawn from the essential functions of a job as described in the job description, the managers identify basic “competencies.” Competencies include knowledge, skills and abilities needed to be successful on the job. They are often presented in the form of questions. Examples include “problem resolution – how well does the employee participate in solving problem in a cooperative and thoughtful way?” Or “support for agency policies – how well does the employee understand and apply important agency policies such as positive customer service and non-discrimination?”

Instead of vaguely defined traits, the competency-based model helps managers and employees zero in on important aspects of behavior or performance that make for success at work. The competency-based model guides the manager in being able to cite examples of behavioral performance which deserve praise or need improvement.

Because the competency-based ratings derive directly from job duties, the system is much more defensible when it comes to responding to charges of unlawful discrimination. The system can be “content valid,” to use one of those HR phrases. On the other hand, competency-based models require more time and thoughtful consideration by the manager. The system is more complex. Without a very strong and ongoing management commitment to timely evaluations, the result can be months of delay and frustration for employees.

Instead of answering the question of “How am I doing?” in a positive manner, delays in performance evaluations are seen by employees as statements of lack of caring by managers who are “in a coma” when it comes to paying attention to their colleagues. Chronically late performance evaluations send the wrong message, to the wrong people, at the wrong time. It is a very poor practice.

  • Keep the evaluations job-related. All comments and all ratings in any evaluation model must be tied to knowledge, skills and abilities required to do the work. This makes the evaluation results easier to defend and more productive. The burden is on the managers to make this connection.
    However, this is not only a burden it is also an investment in manager time which can produce important, positive returns in the form of employee understanding and improved behavior in performance.
  • Use the process to recognize and praise. County agencies will only perform and succeed as a reflection of the skills and dedication of the employees. We fail to say “thank you” often enough and loudly enough in our agencies. Performance evaluations are an outstanding opportunity for managers to say those two important words.
    Linking a positive outcome on the evaluation with a tangible reward such as a cash bonus or additional time off sends a positive message throughout the organization. The message is one which links desired behavior or performance with positive outcomes.
  • Corrective action follows when performance or behavior weakness is noted. If a manager feels that an employee is weak in a certain job-related area, evaluation time is an opportunity to communicate clearly and respectfully to the employee what this feeling is all about and why improvement is important.
    It is an opportunity for the manager to carefully listen to the employee’s feedback since the manager may learn a lot about areas in the organization that can be improved. Meanwhile, the employee can be given clear instructions, documented on the evaluation form, setting out exactly what is expected, what help would be offered in terms of training or further explanation of a policy, and what is expected in terms of improvement.
    This is part of the very important “take excuses away” approach to management which was discussed in a previous HR Doctor article published on March 30, 1998.
  • Finally the evaluation process itself offers managers and employees the chance to speak with one another privately and constructively. In our extremely busy workdays, we often neglect the importance of communicating. We speak to each other in short sentences that are specifically tied to this or that task. There is a lack of meaningful communication in our world generally, including our work world, our community world and our family world. Take the time to change that when it comes to the evaluation process in your agency.
  • Use the process with “R-e-s-p-e-c-t.” Demonstrate to the employee by careful listening and thoughtful responses that you are a caring manager, who understands and sympathizes with the situation at work but one who also has appropriate high expectations and a willingness to challenge and help others succeed. Don’t approach your subordinate interactions as though the employee was a servant of yours or a robot.
  • Performance evaluations are a mirror of the organization. They are a metaphor for what is good and what is not in the organizational culture and interpersonal values of an organization. As a manager and an employee, when you look into that “mirror” what do you see? If you don’t see an organization that pays attention to employee communication and job-related timely evaluation, the HR Doctor recommends that immediate steps be taken to intervene and improve the process. When you look in that mirror, make the reflection a positive one.

More tips are available in the HR Doctor’s “Office” at or give me a call at 954/816-4737.

Best wishes!

Phil Rosenberg,
The HR Doctor

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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