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Curing The Common Evaluation

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 5, 2006

At many organizations, performance appraisals are treated as they are in "Dilbert" or "The Office": "It's performance review day, company-wide," Pam, the office manager character in "The Office," said in an episode last year. "Last year, my performance review started with Michael asking me what my hopes and dreams were, and it ended with him telling me he could bench press 190 pounds."

A lot of employee reviews are about as effective, according to Tom Rath, global practice leader for the workplace with the Gallup Organization.

Fifty-three percent of those rated as top performers and 30 percent of those rated as poor performers say managers help poor performers improve, according to a 2005-2006 report by Watson Wyatt Worldwide Inc., a benefits consulting firm.

Many organizations are on a constant quest to find a formula that is fair to the employees and will help build the business.

Ed Mone, vice president of organization development with software provider CA, changed his company's appraisal process about three years ago. Previously, what people were rated on, and how they were rated, changed depending on the department and manager. There weren't clear definitions for the categories on which employees were to be judged.

So now CA has a company-wide process in which employees are rated on specific categories, such as achievement of goals and output. Employees do a self-evaluation first. Managers then get those evaluations and consider them when doing their own.

The employees are given their evaluation a day or so before their meeting with their boss so they can think about what they want to ask. That helps the meetings be more efficient, Mone said, because the employee isn't focused on one low score. He also suggests reviewers have a discussion about the appraisal somewhere other than the boss's office. "There's a sense of privacy, and you eliminate your sitting behind a desk and having a power position," he said.

The key to Tami Erwin's reviews is no surprises, said the regional president for Verizon Wireless in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

"If you get to the end of year and there's a surprise, there's a problem," she said.

A key piece of Erwin's evaluations is ensuring that individuals' goals and objectives link to the goals of the company. For instance, last year, the company was focused on improving the customer experience, she said. So she and her employees created "performance agreements" that linked a person's objectives to the goal of improving the customer experience.

She finds that the best way to link objectives to the company goal is to have constant communication and clear, concise goals that both the manager and employee agree upon.

Erwin sits down with each person who reports to her (she has seven) at the beginning of the year. They create a development plan that identifies the department's overall goals and the individual's goals. That way, she said, the objectives are all measurable and easy to assess when it comes time to do the evaluation.

She has a monthly discussion with each employee, as well as mid- and end-of-year formal written evaluations that use a template to further equalize the process.

According to Watson Wyatt, 91 percent of companies say they provide formal goal-setting linked to business objectives in their performance review process, and 74 percent say managers are at least partly effective at linking the goals. But only 58 percent of top-performing employees agree with that, and -- perhaps not surprisingly -- only 38 percent of poor-performing employees agree.

Nate Hurto said that with his employees spread out across the United States and the world, "I had a much harder time being objective. I would never know if someone had a really bad morning, or whether it was something symptomatic of a larger issue."

So Hurto, director of product consulting at Plateau Systems, a software provider in Arlington, learned to have more frequent conversations. He has a formal development conversation two times a year and a performance conversation once a year. That way, employees know which goals they need to achieve.

Plateau Systems created a software system for performance reviews that connects employees with training or other resources to help them improve on their largest issues. "For employees to feel their review is accurate, this also provides them with something to act upon," said Paul Sparta, chief executive. He thinks the biggest problem with most employee reviews is that there aren't enough measurable items on the performance review. And because of that, the reviews become almost completely subjective.

"If you make it nothing but a quick sheet about how a person is doing on A, B and C, and it's not data- or metric-driven, it opens up more questions from the employee. They feel it's just a reflection of their manager," Sparta said.

And that is perhaps why many employers are trying to make the dreaded evaluation process happen more than once a year.

Constant feedback, though it sounds as if it might be a pain, can be a huge benefit, said Mike Loversky, senior product consultant who has been with Plateau a little more than 1 1/2 years. He gets consistent feedback from Hurto on what he needs to focus on, he said, and reinforcement of what he does well.

It helps that much of the feedback is positive, even if it is regarding something he needs to fix.

"Those areas I need to work on still are positive feedback, but I can see where I need to focus. And I've seen some improvement," he said.

According to a Gallup workplace poll, employees are far less likely to become disengaged if their employer focuses on their strengths.

And Loversky thinks positive feedback helped him more clearly understand what he needed to change. As at other companies, Plateau managers try to link a worker's goals to the company's master business plan. Loversky was having a tough time connecting his job with the company's goal of providing software to improve talent management. Instead of taking the positive criticism in a bad way, he bought "The Talent Management Handbook" to try to understand how his job could connect with the company's goals.

"Generally, I've done well in terms of the ratings. From my side of the fence, I take that as a general satisfaction from the people I work with that I'm doing my job well," Loversky said. "That takes me a long way. It keeps me coming back and, frankly, helps my attitude in terms of wanting to do more."

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