Performance evaluations: More gain with less pain

Are your organization's annual appraisals done even less frequently because no one likes doing them? You may be missing an opportunity to improve employee relations and productivity.

By Robin Thomas, J.D.

Most employees want and need constructive feedback on how they are doing. So, a performance evaluation system can and should be an effective retention tool. Unfortunately, though, most supervisors dread doing appraisals. This discomfort stems from at least two factors. First, evaluations require them to communicate personal judgments. Second, the process can be time consuming, especially if they only do annual reviews that force them to recall and catalogue a whole year's worth of experiences.

Many HR experts agree that this "once-a-year" approach doesn't work because the resulting appraisal tends to focus on extraordinary events or to rehash past problems that should already have been addressed. Instead, employees need regular, ongoing evaluations and structured guidance to set and achieve both job and career goals. To get the most out of your appraisal process, you should incorporate four elements into your program and train supervisors to steer clear of eight common mistakes that can undermine evaluations.

Combine four factors to make an effective program

For a performance appraisal system to work, it should be designed to give employees clear goals and to rate their progress objectively. The most successful programs typically combine the following four elements:

  1. Regular, informal feedback from supervisors. Annual evaluations aren't enough. Employees need regular input that focuses on day-to-day performance objectives rather than concentrating on past mistakes or failures.
  2. Performance goals set jointly by employees and supervisors. Goals may be both short-term and long-term and can cover a wide variety of objectives, depending on the employee’s current job responsibilities and future aspirations. Goals should be precise and quantifiable where possible, such as the completion of a specific project within a set period of time. To help employees meet their goals, supervisors should provide additional training or other necessary support.
  3. Action plans to address performance or disciplinary problems. Action plans can help when an employee is experiencing performance problems. The supervisor should identify and discuss problems with the employee as they occur and develop a plan of action for improvement. The employee also should have input and be able to suggest changes to the plan. Once agreed upon, the plan should be reviewed regularly to make sure the employee is progressing satisfactorily.
  4. Formal reviews that accurately document the "big picture." Ideally, these formal reviews should be done several times a year. But, if you regularly conduct informal meetings to discuss performance, a semi-annual or even annual review may be sufficient. However, formal reviews generally should not be used to deal with ongoing performance problems. The employee should have been alerted to these during informal discussions and already be following an action plan to correct them. Instead, the purpose of formal meetings is to assess whether goals and action plans have been met and to determine if the employee is on track for career development.

Train to avoid the eight "deadly sins" of evaluations

Manager training on effective and consistent evaluations is essential, since both managers and employees often are uncomfortable discussing performance. You should train your supervisors not to make the following eight common errors that can distort and even invalidate the evaluation process. Specifically, supervisors should not:

  1. Base the evaluation on the employee's most recent behavior, instead of reviewing the whole performance period;
  2. Allow irrelevant or nonjob-related factors to influence the evaluation, such as physical appearance, social standing, participation in employee assistance programs, or use of leaves of absence;
  3. Include only favorable remarks on the evaluation, even when negative comments are justified and appropriate;
  4. Rate all subordinates at about the same point on a ranking scale, usually in the middle;
  5. Allow one characteristic of the employee or one aspect of the job performance to distort the rest of the rating process;
  6. Judge all employees at the extremes, either too leniently or too strictly;
  7. Allow one very good or very bad rating to affect all the other ratings of the employee (the "halo effect"); or
  8. Permit personal bias to unduly influence the evaluation process.

Foster positive attitudes about appraisals

Performance evaluations don't have to be painful or unpleasant if approached systematically. In fact, when done properly, they are effective planning tools for managers and provide important feedback to employees. The first step in a successful program is to train your supervisors and show your organization's commitment to conducting effective appraisals. Next, hold your supervisors accountable for their ability to provide meaningful evaluations and ongoing guidance to their employees. And finally, encourage supervisors to involve employees directly in the formulation of goals and action plans. This disciplined, interactive approach can help eliminate the natural barriers to effective evaluations.

Robin Thomas, J.D., is Managing Editor for Personnel Policy Service, Inc., 159 St. Matthews Avenue, Suite 5, Louisville, KY 40207, and can be reached at, or 1-800-437-3735. Personnel Policy Service markets group legal benefit services and publishes HR information products, including a model Performance Appraisals policy available at