Like a lot of you, I use tax preparation software to do my taxes every year. At the end of the process, I always laugh when the software prompts me to start preparing for next year’s return. I’m sure the program’s information is worthwhile, but after sitting at my desk for an afternoon, answering questions and entering deductions, the last thing in the world I want to do is start thinking about next year’s dance with the tax man.
For most IT managers, the same thing is true when it comes to your employees’ performance reviews. For openers, like doing your taxes, creating these evaluations is an onerous job that can’t be delayed. For another thing, most of us aren’t very good at doing the advance work for either task. In this column, I’m going to give you some suggestions on how you can prepare for these performance reviews, making them less tasking and more useful.
A great idea that doesn’t work—at least for me
In all candor, my record in this area isn’t perfect. All too often, I’ve created ambitious plans that never really saw the light of day. For example, one year after spending a solid week doing nothing but performance reviews (the company I worked for at the time had a single review date for all employees), I vowed that next year would be different.
So I created a series of Notes within Outlook, one for each of my direct reports. My great idea is that I would use these to jot down my observations on employee performance throughout the entire year. That way, when it came time to do the reviews, I’d have all this information ready to go. I could basically do a cut-and-paste job and have the whole mess done in a snap!
That was the plan, anyway. Unfortunately, as our buddy Karl Von Clauswitz from last week’s column once said, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. When it came time to do performance reviews at the end of the year, most of my employee notes looked like the one in Figure A.
As you can see, I started out fine, but over the course of the year, I stopped doing it. Whether I simply forgot, or got too busy—whatever the reason—the results were the same.
Working with what you have
While I’m not going to lie and tell you that I’ve found a magic system for doing performance appraisals, I can tell you what works for me. Since I don’t seem to be capable of creating reams of additional documentation during the year to prepare for the reviews, I save the material I come across during my normal duties. You’d be surprised how much useful information you see in the course of a year regarding employee performance.
For example, if one of my employees has a continuing problem with getting into e-mail flame wars rather than dealing with conflict face-to-face, I simply save all such e-mails in a separate folder. When it comes time to write the review, I’m all set. (Of course, if the situation requires more drastic action, I’m ready for that, as well.)
On the other hand, suppose one of my employees deals with a sensitive subject in an all-company e-mail and does a great job. I also want to save that one for review time. Either way, the point is that instead of creating a special narrative about the incident (which I rarely have time to do), I just put the original document in a special folder (which I’ve always got time to do).
No delays, no surprises
While we’re talking about saving documentation for performance reviews, I want to make sure I’m not misunderstood about one important issue. By no means am I saying that you should delay confronting problematic employee behavior until an annual review. You need to jump on issues as soon as possible. Nor am I saying that you should save all your employee praise for those meetings, either. In fact, I believe very strongly that a performance review should contain no major surprises. If you’re doing your job as an IT manager, your performance review is merely a formal restatement of the feedback, positive and negative, that you’ve been giving your people all year long.
Besides e-mail, you probably have other daily documentation that you can save for annual reviews. Here are some suggestions:
- Project management tools: Whether you use a spreadsheet, Microsoft Project, or some enterprise application, odds are that your organization uses some kind of software to track your projects. These can provide a wealth of information for employee reviews. Of course, the obvious metric would be deadline performance, but don’t stop there. Look at the information to see what kinds of tasks your employee tackled during the previous year and find out where he or she succeeded or failed.
- Budget detail: What can your departmental spending reports tell you about employee performance? It depends on what kind of spending authority they have, among other things. However, don’t forget to look here for information that can jog your memory or quantify a problem. For example, if you had to bring in contract programmers to meet a deadline caused by poor estimates, you can use your budget detail to determine the actual cost before completing the program manager’s review.
- Vendor communications: Whether it’s coming from your side (RFP/RFI) or from the vendor’s side (statements of work, progress reports, etc.), review this information to see what it tells you about your employee’s performance.
- HR information: It goes without saying that you need to carefully review any HR documents relevant to your staff’s performance.
- Last year’s review: Lots of managers forget to look at last year’s review prior to working on the new performance review. For some reason, this is especially true when it comes to looking at a performance review written by a previous manager. How can you know what kind of progress your employee has made in the previous year if you can’t compare his or her current performance to the last review?
Objectivity and flexibility
At this point, you may be wondering why I’m putting all this emphasis on quantifiable metrics and documentation. It has to do with an employee’s need for specifics when discussing negative performance. While I’m going to talk about this in a future column, for right now, consider this example: Imagine you’re meeting with an employee, and you say, “Jim, you’re doing a great job with X. Unfortunately, you’re having some problems with Y.” What is Jim going to want to hear details about, X or Y? If Jim is like most employees, he is invariably going to ask for specifics on Y, but not about X. That’s just human nature. Therefore, be prepared to back up whatever you say with specifics.
I’d like to make one more point about performance reviews. Many organizations use these annual reviews as an opportunity to assign goals to the employee for the upcoming year. Please remember that you need to remain flexible. As all technical managers know, business conditions and department priorities change all the time. If you don’t update your staffs’ goals during the course of the year, don’t be surprised if your staffs’ original goals aren’t met.
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