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The 'what if' method of employee evaluation

(MoneyWatch) From formal reviews with graded criteria to performance metrics vs. assigned goals to purely subjective assessments to testing and more, the business world has a virtually infinite variety of ways to rate and evaluate employees. But no matter what other processes are in place, there's a one-question assessment that every business owner or manager should ask itself about every employee:

"What would happen if he left?"

This simple (even simplistic) question can often be an eye-opener, even in companies with the most comprehensive, sophisticated evaluation practices. In some cases it can tell you more than any other question you can ask, and it usually leads to something along the lines of one of these conclusions:

--Wouldn't even notice if he was gone

--Would be a headache for a day or two, and we'd move on

--Would be a real pain, we'd have to do some scrambling to cover the gap

--Complete disaster, I wouldn't sleep for a month

If an employee's absence or departure falls into one of the first two categories -- little to no impact on the business -- it means either you have outstanding contingency plans and backups in place or that you should be taking a critical look at that employee and his role. There is a chance that either he (or his position) is actually a drain on the business from an overhead/productivity standpoint. Or it might be that he hasn't not been properly trained or supervised, given enough responsibility or allowed the chance to be valuable.

People who fall in the third, and especially fourth, category are too valuable. Of course, I mean that figuratively -- where "too valuable" equals "indispensable." Obviously, we want the best possible people doing the most and best work they can. But like the classic rule about customers, we want the most and best but never one we can't live without. In fact, people who try to sell their companies often find their valuations challenged or reduced when they are far too dependent on one person, supplier or customer for their stability and success.

You should never be in a situation where losing an employee can lead to major problems or even disaster. Your business should be prepared for anyone -- including you -- to be gone for any length of time, or forever (the "I could get hit by a bus tomorrow" scenario). Of course, the smaller a company is, the harder it is to defend against, as people tend to wear many hats and staffing is often lean. But there are steps any business can take to ensure continuity: Cross-train and/or make sure every key employee fully trains his or her backup. Make sure all roles, responsibilities and processes are written down in detail and updated as needed. Have a very specific contingency plan in place for the departure of any critical employee, including yourself. If there isn't someone else in the company to back up every key employee, who is able to jump in and do most or all of what she does on a moment's notice, fix it immediately.

One practice that many companies have implemented over the years is to require employees to use their vacation time. In addition to giving hard-working people a break they should have, it forces the company to look at what they do and make sure it can be done without them. Some companies even discover problems -- sometimes serious ones -- when an employee takes some time off.

Employees are the most important element of any great company, and you should go after the best and brightest you can find. If you have people who are neither here nor there, either get them here (on board and productive) or there (out the door). It is your obligation to either help people succeed or make changes if they can't. As for the most mission-critical people, the responsible and forward-thinking employer makes sure the company has a deep bench so that if a star player leaves the field, the game will go on.

Image by Flickr user Zach Klein

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