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How to Address Shortcomings in Employee Evaluations

By Stephen Northcutt

It is something every manager is uncomfortable with, you have an employee that is a pretty good worker and on four of their five evaluation objectives they did fine, however how do you talk about number five?

As we described in Measuring Employee Performance a quarterly evaluation can be a powerful tool to shape the workplace and help employees develop the hot IT skills that make management happy to reward them with a handsome compensation. And when it works, it is great, but what about when the employee fails to accomplish an agreed upon objective? What can and should a manager do?

Determine your part in the failure first

Are you trained in doing evaluations? If you are a rookie manager consider asking HR or another senior manager for help. Have you changed the employees workload significantly giving them a high priority project during the quarter? Are you giving quarterly evaluations on a regular and timely basis, or do they run three or four weeks late giving the employee only two months to accomplish the work instead of three? Does the employee have too many objectives? The recommended maximum number of objectives for a quarterly performance review is five. This is assuming objectives are things they are expected to accomplish, not characteristics like good citizenship and communication. I reviewed an employee once that had 12 supportable objectives which is way too many, but she was getting them done. However, that was not fair to the employee. If one objective fails, it is statistically insignificant, but it still remains a failure on a performance review. Whenever we assign an objective, especially a new objective, to an employee, we should consider our responsibility to help them succeed. Have we carried our part of the load? Finally, remember you are assessing performance over the entire period, don't let an isolated incident occurring just before the review color your judgment.

Emphasize what they did well

We never want to lose the opportunity to reinforce desired behavior, so before dealing with the failure make sure to cover the positive area where they did succeed. If the failure happens to be the first objective, talk about their overall performance.

Make sure you are in controlled environment if at all possible

No one enjoys talking about failure, if at all possible make sure you are in an environment where you will not be disturbed. Ask an administrative assistant or co-worker to hold all phone calls unless they are truly urgent. This is the employee's time, do what you can to give it to them.

Explain why you rate the objective as a failure and ask them to discuss

A lot of employees respond to the description of an objective with silence or just a comment. If this is really an objective you need for them to meet, then it is important to have a meaningful dialog. Issues and situations vary, but in general your conversation should cover the following touch points:
  • Job Knowledge Skills and Objectives - did they have the tools and training to do the job?
  • Work results or lack thereof - use metrics when possible
  • Communications with others that might have been able to contribute to success
  • Initiative and problem solving - if they tried 15 different approaches and still missed the objective, maybe the line is in the wrong place
  • Work habits related to this task - the most common reason someone fails to meet an objective is they don't work to achieve it

Understand and expect that they may not agree with your assessment

Of course your responsibility in a performance based organization is to get the bridge built on time and it is pretty obvious to everyone if there is a failure to execute. However, it is important to try to understand the employee's perspective. Usually one of two things is true, they feel the objective was met, or they did not feel the objective was a priority. If they feel the objective was met and they can support that assertion with data and they are an otherwise successful employee, it may be best not to mark that as a failure and go back and restate the requirements and the criteria for success. If they did not feel the objective is a priority and intentionally did not meet the objective through inaction, then hopefully the underlying reasons came out in the discussion.

Consider a neutral review. That involves bringing in a person with no emotional attachment to review the documentation and briefly discuss the issues with the parties involved and render a non-binding judgment to management. If you have any doubt at all that the employee had every chance for success and want to keep the employee as opposed to the times we are forced to use the review process to document discipline or termination, a neutral review can be a powerful tool. And you will probably learn that there were things you could have done to better help the employee succeed.

However, if the organization is going to prosper it has to execute. This is where you earn your pay as a manager. If the organization feels a bridge needs to be built but it was not, yet the employee had a fair chance of accomplishing that objective, then it reflects on either the employees competence or desire, and possibly both. That is, after all, the point of a performance evaluation and the results may need to impact compensation, promotion and responsibility in the future.

End on a positive note

Make eye contact, shake hands, say something kind, do everything you can to keep the conversation from ending on a sour note. Even if you are repeating yourself, try to reinforce the good things you have noticed about the employee.