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The Dirty Dozen Performance Appraisal Errors

Some management mavens have questioned the utility of performance appraisals, calling for their abolition. But if done correctly, appraisals can stimulate productivity, shape culture, reward excellent performance, provide notice to employees who need improvement or development, and establish baselines for employment decisions.

Nonetheless, appraisals can achieve their intended purposes only if done properly. It is better to have no appraisals than sloppy ones. Allow me to present 12 common mistakes made in the appraisal process, along with recommendations for how to avoid or at least minimize them.

1. Late Evaluation

Few managers jump with glee at appraisal time. When they triage workplace demands, many times appraisals end up at the bottom. As a result, late appraisals are often the norm and not the exception.

From an employee relations perspective, the message is clear. You may say in your handbook that you consider employees your most valuable asset, but they now know why you include so many disclaimers, too—because it's not true.

Late appraisals also may lessen a manager's credibility in the eyes of subordinates. If the manager writes up the subordinate for missing a deadline, expect the subordinate to remind his manager that he is only following her example.

We can minimize late evaluations only if we hold managers accountable for their lateness. Set strict deadlines. Evaluate managers on their timeliness.

2. Over-evaluation

Often an employee with substandard performance is evaluated as meeting expectations or even better, and the average employee receives an above-average evaluation. Unfortunately, over-evalution does a number of disservices. It provides a false sense of security to the employee and devalues excellent performance by others. And it serves as possible evidence of bias (pretext) for legal action if subsequent to the over-evaluation, the employee is criticized or penalized for real problems with her performance. (The apparent inconsistency may give the employee a basis for claiming unlawful treatment.)

To combat over-evaluation, we should train our evaluators to begin the evaluation of each criterion with "meets expectations" and then go up or down. Starting visually at the top makes it harder psychologically to go down as far as you may need to go.

Consider a comparator question: How does the employee's performance compare with his or her peers? Provide three options: stronger, essentially the same, or weaker. A relative few can be stronger and a relative few can be weaker. This form of forced ranking helps make distinctions at the extremes where most employment decisions (promotions and discharges) are made.

3. Timing Issues

An annual evaluation should reflect only the year evaluated. But sometimes employers bring up baggage from the past.

Managers should raise prior deficiencies only to the extent they remain, in which event they really are current deficiencies. Conversely, if a deficiency was noted in the prior year and the employee has corrected it, that can and should be noted.

Another timing mistake is focusing heavily on performance in the last few months. That process allows employees to game the system by working at their full potential only in the last quarter.

While managers should focus on the full 12 months, they should note any differences in performance at different periods of time. For example, if the employee's performance rated as stronger or weaker in the last quarter, the manager can and should note it with the recommendation that flows from it.

4. Inconsistency

Apparent inconsistency robs an appraisal process of its legitimacy. It may also serve as fodder for discrimination claims.

Generally speaking, employers must consider three types of inconsistency relative to evaluations.

The first is inconsistency between comments and scores on an employee's evaluation. To minimize this risk, consider instructing evaluators to complete the qualitative comments first and then determine what quantitative score goes with it. This will help combat over-evaluation, too.

The second is apparent inconsistency between last year's and this year's appraisal. Where material changes downward have occurred, there should have been some interim notice. The decline should not come as a surprise to the employee. Consider midyear reviews for those who aren't on track to achieve the same review as last year (or who are not making the required improvement last year's appraisal called for).

The third potential inconsistency is apparent unfair or inconsistent application of standards to different employees. "Yes, my communication was subpar but so was hers!" You can minimize this risk in a number of ways. For example, for any negative score given to an employee on a particular criterion, the evaluating manager should ask herself whether anyone else she manages has similar deficiencies. The evaluating manager should review each subordinate, one at a time. Yes, this takes time, but much less than a deposition. And consider evaluating all employees by one criterion at a time as opposed to evaluating each employee one at a time. In other words, evaluate all employees on quality of work first, quantity of work second, etc. This will help to ensure consistency as you make comparisons and combat over-evaluation, too.

5. "Like Me" Bias

A number of years ago, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) created a "Like Me" task force. Its general conclusion—there was a human tendency to favor employees who are like the managers making the employment assessment.

"Like me" bias plays out in the hiring process when interviewers unconsciously hire their mirror image. "Like me" bias also plays out in the evaluation process where managers sometimes evaluate more favorably those who ape them in how they get the job done.

We should demand certain givens of our subordinates—quality, timeliness, and ethics, to name just three. In these areas, we can and should expect likeness from our subordinates.

"Like me" bias turns into a problem when we focus too much on style or process and not enough on outcome achieved. We need to embrace diversity in work, thought, and communication styles.

For a manager, the question is not whether the employee performed the task as she or he would have done, but rather whether the employee achieved the desired results in a reasonable way.

6. Stereotyping

Related to "like me" bias, stereotyping can rear its ugly head in the context of appraisals. It can qualify as a form of unlawful discrimination.

As a result of heightened awareness, blatant stereotyping has decreased. But sometimes evaluators embed stereotyping in the subtext of comments.

For example, all too often managers apply "lack of commitment" to describe someone—usually a woman—who gets the job done but with less face time because the individual has primary child- or elder-care responsibilities. So long as the product or service meets your expectations in terms of quality, timeliness, etc., it should not matter whether the employee completes it between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. in your office or between 10 p.m. and midnight after the kids fall asleep.

7. Using Labels Rather Than Behaviors

Including labels without examples provides little guidance to the employee about where he needs to improve. Claiming an employee has a bad attitude does not say much. Saying the employee does not accept responsibility for his errors, slams doors, and walks out of meetings abruptly says it all.

8. Using Absolutes

Be careful of the halo or horn effects, whereby the manager deems someone all good or all bad. Extreme comments that support either the halo or the horn are easily subject to attack; the employee need only point to one example to the contrary. That doesn't necessarily prove discrimination, but it may damage your credibility. No one is either perfect or completely without virtue, and our comments should reflect balance, not extremes. Remember, the absolutes ("always" and "never") are absolutely assailable and never defensible.

9. Impugning intent

Stay away from impugning an employee's intent. "You didn't try." "You don't care." "You weren't applying yourself." Intent is largely irrelevant; you cannot prove it. And the worker may take it as a personal attack. Employees who feel attacked attack back. Focus on the employee's results, not his intent.

10. Referencing Protected Absences

Be careful about referencing protected leaves (for example, family or medical leave under the Family & Medical Leave Act) on the evaluation. A problematic comment: "Upon returning from FMLA, the employee was absent six days in 12 weeks without providing adequate notice." Was the problem the lack of notice or that the lack of notice followed the employee's exercise of her right to take protected leave? An appropriate comment: "Your absenteeism is excessive. Of course, we are not counting the four weeks when you were off in July covered by FMLA. Rather, we are considering only the following absences …"

11. One-Sided Dialogue

Never make the evaluation a hit-and-run. It should take the form of a dialogue between the supervisor and subordinate, not an isolated event but rather a part of performance/career management more generally.

Ask employees for input on the feedback you give them. Where any employee does not agree, listen to his explanation. If the employee is right, change the evaluation. If the employee's perspective does not hold water, let him know just that—while you respect his perspective, you disagree with it and expect him to do things as you have instructed. He doesn't need to agree. He just needs to comply.

12. Absence of Goals

Set goals for the future. Keep in mind the acronym SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.

And stay focused on the employee's workplace performance or behavior. We all turn into amateur psychologists as we grow professionally. Avoid the temptation to play diagnostician when evaluating the employee. Focusing on what you perceive as the physical or mental cause of the deficiency diverts attention from the real issue, often is wrong, and may give rise to a perceived ("regarded as") disability claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice pertaining to specific factual situations.

Jonathan A. Segal is a partner at Duane Morris in the employment, labor, benefits and immigration practice group. He is the managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute, a provider of employment instruction via seminars and webinars.

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