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Effective Performance Reviews

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Is your staff turnover rate higher than you would like it to be? Do you struggle with motivating your staff? Could your staff be better utilized? If you can answer "yes" to any of these questions, read on!

Most times, when thinking of performance reviews, one tends to think of year-end bonuses and new-year salary revisions. The fact is that performance assessments affect us all the time. They are the keys to justifying promotions and firings, choosing whether to look outside the company or hire from within, and deciding who to keep and who to let go in a takeover situation. These situations occur year-round, not just at the end of the fiscal year. At first glance, properly evaluating IT personnel performance may sound like an arcane discipline, applicable only in its own narrow band of the work force. Perception, in this case, is not reality. In the technology realm, we tend to look for a quantified evaluation of skill proficiency, real accomplishments, and the ability to work in a team. Hardly unique, is it?

In this article, I propose two sample rating models for evaluating personnel. While the examples used are clearly aimed at the technical professional, the model can be adapted to suit other types of employees. With this rating model as a base, I will also put forth the idea that an effective performance review is more than a simple measurement. It is perhaps the best tool to help individual staff members understand where they stand as professionals. With that information, they can focus personal development efforts (courses, skill training, etc.) in precisely the areas that they need to improve the most, thus reaping best return for their efforts, both for themselves and their employer.

The Uncertainty

In the ideal world, a performance review should be a question of measuring achievements against previously agreed-upon, well-documented goals. In such cases, there is no uncertainty for the reviewer or the reviewee. In effect, the performance review becomes a process of recording progress and setting new goals. There are no surprises in terms of expectation or perception. There are only adjustments.

In the real world, however, individuals about to receive reviews are too often uncertain about how the evaluation will be done and what criteria they will be judged upon. Also too often, the reason for this situation is that the criteria for the review are not well-established to start with. In such situations, performance reviews are very subjective and less accurate than they could be. This may lead to misunderstandings and dissatisfaction, for both the employee and the reviewing supervisor.

In an informal mode, simple performance reviews can range from "Well, you did a pretty good job this year" to "Well, we can't give you much of a salary increase based on your accomplishments." When everything is positive, vague reviews are not something we typically care that much about. In cases where the review is less than positive, vague performance appraisals can be especially frustrating for the person reviewed.

Itemization to the Rescue

The opposite of a vague review is a granular, specific review. The principle is simple: Itemize the tasks that form the job description and rate them with quantifiable, measurable rules. Each rule should be backed up with as many specific comments as possible. The task can be viewed as a performance factor, and the rating should be designed to measure that task. Note that not all tasks can be measured the same way.

Here is the first example: SI Systems, an IT consulting firm, published the following humorous rating system in January 2003. While it is more a joke than a real review system, it has enough elements to begin the review process by using specific performance factors measured against specific ratings for each factor.

Performance Factor
Rating

5
4
3
2
1
Quality
Leaps tall buildings in a single bound
Must take a running start to leap over tall buildings
Can only leap over short buildings or medium buildings
Crashes into buildings when attempting to jump over them
Cannot recognize buildings at all
Timeliness
Is faster than a speeding bullet
Is as fast as a speeding bullet
Not as fast as a speeding bullet
Would you believe a slow bullet?
Often shoots self in foot when in a hurry
Initiative
Is stronger than a locomotive
Is stronger than a bull elephant
Is stronger than a bull
Shoots the bull
Smells a lot like a bull
Adaptability
Walks on water
Walks on water in emergencies
Washes with water
Drinks water
Passes water in emergencies
Responsibility
Can count on him/her all the time
Can count on him/her in most cases
Can count on him/her some of the time
Can count using fingers
Can't be counted on



On a more serious note, for a performance review effort to yield meaningful results, a more comprehensive approach is necessary. Ideally, the goal is to help employees grow. This can only be done by identifying their strong points and helping them understand what their weak points are so that they can improve in these areas, ultimately to become more "rounded" in terms of skills and thus more promotable. Another point to remember with growth-oriented performance reviews is that personal development is not just about solving weak points. People need to develop new capabilities in order to maintain interest in their work and remain competitive.

In the mid-1980s, one of the better-known IT departments to work for in Toronto was Kinney Canada Inc. With two S/38 systems and a staff of more than 50, it was one of the largest S/38 shops in the city. During this time, Eugene Chang, a team leader who would eventually become the department manager, devised a performance review system specifically geared for programming and systems analyst staff.

The Eugene Chang performance review model shown below is one that I personally experienced while working at Kinney. The rating categories are the same for all skills but are driven by a combination of a rating guide and a base standard or benchmark for each skill set. The form also provides space for comments, which may be useful in justifying individual ratings and comparing reviews from one year to the next.

Performance Factors
Below Requirements
Qualified
Well-
Qualified
Proficient
Highly Proficient
Comments
Job Knowledge






Initiative






Quality of Work






Quantity of Work






Ability to Work with Others






Judgment and Common Sense






Ability to Communicate Effectively






Planning and Organizational Ability






Attitude






Comments (ensure the comment section is large enough to accommodate hand-written notes)

What changes have you observed in the employee's performance since the last review?

Additional supervisor comments

Employee comments
Goal Setting (ensure the comment section is large enough to accommodate hand-written notes)

What are the employee's career goals, and how is the employee progressing toward these goals? (The reviewer may want to also evaluate how the company is working to help that career development process.)

Outline any training or guidance needed for the employee to satisfactorily fulfill present job requirements.

Outline any additional training or guidance needed to enable employee to assume greater responsibility.

What special steps are being taken to provide training or guidance (in either/both of the areas contained in 1 and 2)?


Again, the key to the success of this approach is to ensure that every category has an appropriate and measurable rating guide or standard, as shown below. When the review is administered, it is important that the person reviewed is well aware of what is expected in each category. Another point to monitor is that as business evolves, so do positions, job descriptions, and responsibilities. Evaluations and evaluation criteria should be revised to match these changes.

Rating Guide

 

Below Requirements
The employee's performance is unacceptable after an attempt has been made by the supervisor to correct the situation.

If performance does not improve, termination should be considered, or employee should be re-assigned to a position of less responsibility.

Note: An employee performance review containing a significant number of "Below Requirements" ratings in performance factors should be discussed with the next higher supervisor, and further standards of performance should be established, with copies forwarded to the Personnel Department.
Qualified
The employee's performance meets the minimum job requirements.

Performs some of the essential elements of the job competently but has not mastered all elements of the job.
Well
Qualified
The employee's performance comfortably meets job requirements and then some.

Mastered all elements of the job.
Proficient
The employee meets the job requirements and regularly contributes over and above that.

This category should be used for employees when performance is consistently good and where customer or user satisfaction rating is consistently high.
Highly Proficient
The employee has clearly made significant progress in job performance and consistently demonstrates a high level of achievement.

Shows complete comprehension of the job requirements and voluntarily contributes more than his/her share.

Requires only infrequent guidance of coaching.

Note that an employee who receives many or all "Highly Proficient" ratings is perhaps being underutilized and may be a good candidate for advancement.

 

Standard Benchmarks for Evaluation

Factor 1: Job Knowledge
Standard: Overall understanding of the job requirements

Consider:
Does the employee have a good working knowledge of the technical aspects of the job?

Does the employee understand how the job relates to the department and company operation?

Is the employee interested in further training and development in order to upgrade skills for present job? (If so, make note in comment section.)


Factor 2: Initiative
Standard: Ability to work on own initiative

Consider:
Does the employee consistently seek new and better ways to perform the job?

Does the employee demonstrate originality, versatility, and independent action in learning new techniques and adapting them to the job requirement?

Are regular and/or recurring assignments undertaken without frequent requests by the supervisor?

Is the employee able to handle new situations?

Are unusual problems dealt with in a satisfactory manner?


Factor 3: Quality of Work
Standard: Work is accurate and only occasionally requires revision due to errors or poor judgment

Consider:
Does the employee realize the need for quality of work?

Is the work completed in an accurate, thorough, and proper manner?

Is the work acceptable without review by supervisor or other department heads?

Have there been complaints or compliments on the employee's performance by others? (If so, make note in comment section.)


Factor 4: Quantity of Work
Standard: Minimal standard acceptable to management

Consider:
Is the work consistently completed on time?

Are deadlines for major projects met?

Are emergency or special requests responded to without disrupting the regular workload for a prolonged period?


Factor 5: Ability and Willingness to Work with Others
Standard: Cooperative and gets along with other staff members

Consider:
Does employee try to cooperate with other staff members?

Is constructive criticism received well?

Does employee make allowances for individual differences (e.g., tolerance, patience, willingness to spend extra time to resolve problems for which there may be more than one solution)?

Is the job carried out in a spirit of cooperation with groups or individuals in and out of the company?

Does the employee communicate effectively with other staff members in order to coordinate the job on a team basis?

Does the employee share his/her experience and knowledge for the benefit and personal growth of others?

Does the employee understand how his/her work performance affects other employees and departments?


Factor 6: Judgment and Common Sense
Standard: Exhibits the required judgment to perform the job in a proficient manner

Consider:
Are problems brought to the attention of the supervisor with several possible solutions?

Can employee be relied upon to refer unusual situations to the supervisor for clarification?


Factor 6: Ability to Communicate Effectively
Standard: Listens well and expresses ideas and concepts effectively

Consider:
Are written memos understandable, clear, and well-organized?

Is oral expression clear? Are thoughts well-expressed?

Does employee listen without interrupting?

Does employee ask for clarification immediately if anything he/she heard is unclear?

Do instructions seldom need to be repeated in order for employee to understand and execute them?


Factor 7: Planning and Organizational Ability
Standard: Ability to organize and prioritize work efficiently

Consider:
Does employee budget time and prioritize work load effectively?

Does employee follow through with projects and ensure that they are completed on time?

Is the normal schedule of the department understood well enough to allow for short and long-term planning?

Does employee organize assigned projects in order to meet deadlines?


Factor 8: Attitude
Standard: Conscientiousness and interest in the job

Consider:
Is the employee a self-starter, or are specific instructions usually required?

Does the employee accept and complete both normal and unusual assignments?

Does the employee accept supervisor's suggestions?

Does the employee observe company policies?

Does the employee have a record of satisfactory attendance and punctuality?
Is the employee moody, prone to "blow up," or difficult to approach?


On the management side: At first glance, structured performance reviews appear to be an extra effort. In actual fact, having standardized methods make the evaluation process easier. Such detailed reviewing techniques also make it easier to identify employees who are perhaps competent but not in their current positions. Structured performance reviews also enable supervisors to make decisions about whom to reward in the organization and how to quantify a bonus if any.

Another advantage of such a standardized system is that supervisors across the company would have a consistent process by which to evaluate employees. Absence of a consistent process may lead to situations in which not all managers do formal reviews or not the same type of reviews. As a result, some departments may get, as a group, consistently excellent (but unjustified) reviews, while others drag behind with a perception of bad performance for similar reasons. From top management perspective, only a true measurement is a valid one to be able to make the right decisions when it comes to employee development.

On the employee side: Having one's performance dissected in this manner may initially be intimidating, but once the individual can see his or her own progress, in a written and tangible form, it is a very empowering process. In my own experience, this type of review is highly beneficial for the reviewed person. Why? Because it allows one to clearly understand where one's strengths and, most importantly, one's weaknesses are. This makes it much easier for the individual to make a special effort to focus on the areas that need improvement. Typically, the points to improve are precisely the ones that prevent a promotion or salary increase. With such an appraisal system, from review to review, one can chart one's own progress toward proficiency.

Beyond measuring strengths and weaknesses, the employer should realize, in a review situation, that career management and goal-oriented development are equally critical. Employees who do not grow in a company tend to look for growth opportunities elsewhere. The point is, development is not just about solving weaknesses. Let's say a terrific programmer would like to become a manager. That person's lack of supervisory experience doesn't deserve the term "weakness," if the opportunity was not offered to him or her in order to develop it. However, allowing him to assume some supervisory work or take a supervisor training course can help him develop these skills.

What Is Right for Your Company?

In the end, there is no one system that works perfectly for all companies. My examples give an idea of what can be done. If it were beneficial, you could use a numbered rating system and give each category a different weight factor to properly quantify the value of each skill per job, per employee. Each company can create it's own method of evaluation.

These are the important points to keep in mind:

  • Itemized and consistent rules-based rating systems produce the best results.
  • Using the same concept, supervisory staff skills can also be evaluated. In this case, peers and subordinates would evaluate each manager in a confidential manner. The result of such evaluations may yield valuable information about how teams react to leaders within the organization. For this type of review, the questions and performance review factors would be very different from the ones outlined above. Again, however, the itemized and rules-based rating would yield the most meaningful results.
  • Defining levels of competency with concrete examples is the best way to avoid overly subjective reviews. They also help define goals.
  • Garbage in, garbage out! If you are going to do it, do it right or not at all.

In Conclusion

Jack Welsh, former CEO of General Electric, started the popular "rank and yank" culture with his famous 20/70/10 formula: Every year, the top 20% of the employees are considered high potential and groomed for bigger and better jobs. The bottom 10% are tossed out. Fired. How about that 70% in the middle? Well, somebody has to run the company--until the next year! The question with this formula is, what if only the top 10% of your staff is really promotable? What if only the bottom 3% are non-performers? In such a case, 10% of the staff would be groomed for positions they would not be ready for, and 7% of good people would be shown the door. The rest of the crowd will likely consider their options.

People and their knowledge are what companies are primarily made up of. Think of it: Where would any company be without its people? Increasingly, companies recognize service as a value-added feature. Less service equals less business, less positive recognition, less repeat business. This is where human resource capital is critical to stay in the race.

The reverse is also true. "Rank and yank", as it turns out, is expensive. There may be far more profit to be reaped with a "rank and grow" strategy. Because of its cyclical nature, a performance review oriented toward personal growth is not a short-term fix. In the long-term, it can help take staff to a new level of competence more effectively than almost any other method. The competitive advantage, in the end, comes from the people.

Author's Notes

S.I. Systems is a national supplier of prequalified contract IT professionals to businesses across Canada with offices in Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, and Vancouver.

Eugene Chang is an IT manager with over 20 years of experience. He is available for independent consulting assignments and can be reached at 416-281-6296 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Thibault Dambrine is a consultant in Calgary, Alberta. He also maintains an iSeries content Web site named www.tylogix.com. You can reach Thibault at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The author thanks everyone who has edited or anonymously contributed ideas to this article.

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