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10 Ways to Ruin an Employee Evaluation

To the employee who receives an annual performance evaluation, the meeting is a big, literally once-a-year event. To the boss or manager who is responsible for a number of employees, delivering annual evaluations can feel like anything but.
Complacency can easily lead to making simple mistakes -- mistakes that can dramatically impact the employee's motivation and performance.

Here are 10 ways to ruin an employee evaluation -- and how to make sure you don't:

  1. Ask the employee to evaluate themselves. Requesting self-evals is a lose-lose proposition. A great employee who evaluates herself, formally or informally, and feels she does a great job is left wondering why you even asked (and whether you're too lazy to do the appraisal yourself.) A poor employee is unlikely to rate themselves as poor, turning what could have been a constructive discussion into an argument. Self evaluations may sound "inclusive" but are a waste of time. Never ask for a formal self-eval, and don't even ask for informal self-evals during the meeting.
  2. Raise issues you can't back up with examples. Make a general statement about poor performance and almost every employee will, quite rightly, ask for specific examples. Without concrete instances your point is lost. Never refer in general terms to any problem or area for improvement without examples that back up your conclusion. Facts and figures are a necessity.
  3. Discuss personality traits -- especially negative ones. You can get away with saying, "You have a great attitude." (No one argues with positive comments.) But saying, "You have a poor attitude," focuses on personality and not performance. Maybe the employee does have a poor attitude; if so, instead list examples of actual behaviors that lead to that conclusion. Always focus on behaviors, not personality.
  4. Focus primarily on the near-term. The longer the evaluation period the more likely this is to occur. Almost all the evaluations I received focused on my performance over the previous couple of months, even if I had accomplished great things over the course of the entire year. Focus on the near-term and employees naturally catch the "oh yeah, my eval is coming up soon so it's time to buckle down" disease. Keep records, take notes, and make sure the evaluation reflects performance over the entire period.
  5. Over-rate to "motivate." Some people feel employees will live up to an evaluation. ("If I tell her she's doing a great job, maybe that will give her the boost she need to actually start doing a great job.") Evaluations should accurately reflect performance. Find other ways to motivate besides puffing up an eval.
  6. Compare to other employees. Even if it's true, never say something like, "Your sales numbers are the worst in the group." And definitely don't compare one employee to another. Comparisons are unfair at best and often create hard feelings and unhealthy competition. Only compare employee performance to standards; if the employee does have the lowest sales numbers but is still meeting expectations, focus on ways to exceed expectations.
  7. Ask throw-away questions. Evaluations should be two-way conversations, right? So you need to ask the employee questions to spark dialogue, right? Absolutely -- but not stupid questions. Don't ask general questions about the economy, the industry, the market, or the business. And don't ask for ideas on how the business can improve; save that for another time. Employee evaluations are an employee's "me time." Evaluations should focus solely on the employee, so ask if they're having any problems, they need assistance, have the right tools to do the job, etc. In short, ask for ways you can help them succeed. (That is, after all, your primary function.)
  8. Answer questions you can't -- or shouldn't. It's easy to feel all-knowing when you deliver an evaluation. You're not. If you don't have the information you need, say so and follow up later. If you shouldn't talk about something, don't. It's tempting to go with the flow of an open conversation and disclose sensitive or confidential information. Be honest and forthcoming about the employee's performance and stop there, no matter how tempted you are to confide or share.
  9. Make promises you can't keep. Good performance appraisals evaluate the past and look to the future. By all means share developmental or improvement plans, but keep in mind that when you say "possibly" the employee often hears "definitely." Always manage expectations: If you aren't sure you can come through, either don't speak at all or emphasize that a potential opportunity is only a possibility -- and if a potential opportunity doesn't work out, let the employee know and explain why.
  10. Ignore the previous review. Do you remember everything you said the last time you evaluated a particular employee? Of course you don't -- but the employee does. Use the same examples and the employee feels you're just going through the motions. Discuss the same opportunities and the employee feels you pay lip service to career development. Take notes after the meeting and review those notes and the previous eval before you sit down next time. Remember, performance evaluations are part of an overall process of improvement and development, not a one-off event to quickly forget -- because even if you forget what you say, the employee never will.
Related: Photo courtesy flickr user v.h.d., CC 2.0
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