Improving employee performance with a better approach to appraisal

Personnel Matters

I’ve had the pleasure of working in the business world and in academe. And I’ve encountered some of the same types of problems in both. Most of these problems center around the appraisal of performance.

In academe, the question I often get is “Why did I get a C, D or F?” In business, the counterpart is “Why wasn’t I rated ‘Meets’ or ‘Exceeds’?” or “Why was I rated ‘Average’ or ‘Below Average’?”

At present, I’m addressing complaints from two students about grades they received from a faculty member who reports to me as program director. These complaints involve the following factors: unclear expectations, lack of periodic feedback and an unexpected final outcome. These same factors account for many of the reactions that employees have to their annual performance evaluations.

But before we delve into what can be done to avoid these situations, let’s examine the reasons for evaluation in the first place. Some educators contend that we should do away with grades, and some management experts contend that we should do away with annual performance evaluations. That’s one way to avoid problems, but grades are an important indicator of student performance, and they provide the basis for determining whether a student earns a degree. 

Similarly, annual evaluations in business are an overall indicator of employee performance, and they are needed for purposes such as determining merit increases, training needs, promotions and retention decisions. In both situations, other decisions rest upon having a summative indicator of performance.

But evaluation should be more than just assigning a grade or a performance rating. In academe, I stress that a course should contain multiple assignments to give students ample opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities. The assignments should have clear expectations as to what is desired as a final product. During a course, we require the instructor to communicate frequently with students in various forums and provide extensive feedback on each assignment to help the student improve. If faculty carry out these guidelines, by the time students reach the end of the course, they should have a fairly accurate view of what their final grade will be. And as a result, there should be little cause for dissatisfaction and grade appeals.

In business, similar expectations for performance appraisal can be established to avoid those dreaded annual performance reviews. Here are a few guidelines for improving the appraisal process and employee performance:

Use a uniform performance cycle. In academe, the cycle is a semester or a term. In business it is usually a calendar year. Using a common time to conduct evaluations ensures that all employees are evaluated under the same conditions over the same time frame.

Establish clear performance expectations and measures. If goal setting is involved, use the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-bound) approach and discuss the goals in advance with the employee. If goal setting is not used, provide a copy of the performance evaluation form to the employee in advance and discuss what acceptable performance on each assessment dimension would look like. Reviewing the job description with the employee can also be helpful.

Provide frequent (and extensive) feedback and coaching for improvement. Ongoing feedback and coaching are the keys to improved performance and greatly reduce the likelihood of the employee’s surprise at the annual evaluation outcome. Checking in with one’s employees at least weekly is also a good idea, and informal quarterly reviews can be used to reinforce the weekly observations. And remember, “nice job” and “needs improvement” are insufficient as feedback.

Clarify expectations and conduct training for evaluators. If you have supervisors or managers reporting to you, I suggest clarifying their role in the performance appraisal process using the guidelines discussed above. Also, provide training that helps them accomplish the program’s goals. Appraisal doesn’t have to be a difficult task that one seeks to avoid, but it does require forethought and planning to avoid undesirable and unpleasant outcomes. 

The appraisal process should be carried out with improved employee performance as the goal. Just as we want our students to excel in their studies, you want to see your employees excel on the job. An effective appraisal process can help achieve that goal. And it will reduce the likelihood of a surprised employee at the annual review. 

About Dr. W. J. Heisler 14 Articles
Dr. W. J. Heisler is professor of human resource management and director of the MSHRM program at Troy University. He operates out of TROY’s site based in Chesapeake, Va. He holds Ph.D. and M.B.A. degrees from Syracuse University and worked for more than 20 years in management and executive positions in human resources at Newport News Shipbuilding. Contact: