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How to Evaluate Employees Without HRBS

Employee evaluations often suffer from a serious malady known as HRBS, otherwise known to some managers and employees as HR bull—.

This malady is usually the result of inexperienced managers or HR people who come up with a standard list of bad topics and questions to use in evaluations. It’s worse when they require their managers to use them and not make them optional.
These awkward conversational guidelines are easy to recognize. They:

Don’t sound like the kind of questions anyone would ask in a normal conversation at work. (“What are your greatest strengths on the job? Greatest weaknesses?”)

Never get asked during the other 239 work days in a normal work year. (“How can you do your job differently?”)
Force the employee to say something they would feel uncomfortable saying to the boss. (“What can you do better next year?”)
Are useless clichés. (“Where do you see yourself in five years?”)

Objective Versus Subjective

Note how the questions above, which come from real experiences, are subjective, general in nature and largely based on opinions and not objective and specific insights.

Anyone who has evaluated enough employees will know when a question is a dud. The employee stammers, gives a blank look or searches hard for a coherent answer. Good questions and comments tailored to the individual employee — and said with the right tone and facial expression — should trigger a natural and spontaneous reply.

Fortunately, some companies have excellent managers and HR people who know what they are doing. Besides a form that ranks the employee on a series of objective standards, they produce helpful and thought-provoking topics and questions to use during the evaluation process. They also give their people some flexibility in how to use them or whether to use them at all.

Tip: An employee’s reaction to a question is often a good indication about the value of the question or the way it was presented.

Backward-Looking Evaluations

What is the difference between HRBS and an insightful employee evaluation? In reality, managers don’t give evaluations to ask mamby pamby questions like, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”.

Managers are there to tell employees how the manager perceives their behavior and performance over the course of the past year. During that conversation, the managers should ask questions to find out if their perceptions about the employees are correct.

In return, the employee should ask questions to find out why the manager has those perceptions, especially if they disagree with what the employee thinks.

Questions and comments during an evaluation should:

  • Focus on observable behavior. (“I’m impressed that you have been arriving a half hour early every day.”)
  • Track measurable performance. (“Your billable hours were up 10 percent this year over last year. Nicely done!”)
  • Avoid anything of a personal nature. (“I saw you pretty tipsy at a restaurant after work.”)

But none of these discussions should have any big surprises in them. Managers and employees who communicate effectively with each other should already have had many of these discussions over the past year.

Tip: Use insightful communication throughout the year to make the evaluation just a formality for the human resources department and the employee’s personnel file.

Forward-Looking Evaluations

These objective observations by the manager and the employee should act as the basis for the employee’s future. That future includes both next year in the current job as well as opportunities for advancement.

In reality, some employees simply don’t think ahead to the next year or the coming years of their careers. They show up to do a job, collect a paycheck and go home. They often end up with evaluations that place them in the middle of the pack.

Employees as a group look like a bell curve. A small number at one end fall short of expectations. A small number at the other end exceed expectations. The majority lie in-between.

So a conversation about the future depends on where an employee fits on that bell curve. Like the employees themselves, the questions and comments fall loosely into three groups.

Goal-Focused Feedback

Poor performers need measurable, goal-focused feedback that will improve their results or start them on the path toward the exit door. (“How can we get your billable hours to increase by 10 percent next year?”)

Average performers need only gentle pressure to achieve marginal improvements. There is little value in demanding much more from people who can’t give much more. Too much pressure may lead to a costly turnover that does nothing to improve the situation. (“Have you noticed any delays or logjams in the X processes that we can fix or improve?”)

Top performers need to stay happy to avoid the risk of losing them. Smart managers invest extra time and energy in these employees. (“Let’s talk about ways we can help you advance in the company.”)

Tip: Ultimately, all questions and comments should stay flexible and fit the personality of the individual employee as well as the specific needs of the organization.

How Employees Should Respond

Atypical evaluation may begin with casual talk to put the employee at ease, followed by a more serious set of questions and comments and then the ratings on an evaluation form. The ratings on the evaluation form often trigger the most debate.
Evaluation forms with objective standards usually have either three or five ratings. The most common three are:

  1. Exceeds expectations
  2. Meets expectations
  3. Needs improvement

The other two are “exceptional” and “unsatisfactory”.

Highly defensive employees run the risk of turning the evaluation into a bad experience for themselves and their bosses. They don’t have a bright future.

They object to just about everything in the process. If they get a “Meets Expectations” on the standards, they insist they exceed expectations. If they get “Needs Improvement” or “Unsatisfactory”, the discussion will often take a sharp decline.

Other employees will sit there and not say anything. They are either afraid to talk or simply want to get it done so they can go back to work.

How to Manage Disagreements

Shrewd employees with good managers will take full advantage of the opportunity to talk about their future, largely agree with most of the evaluation and respectfully disagree with only one or two points on the part of the manager. They shouldn’t put the manager on the defensive, nor damage their credibility by disagreeing with too much of the feedback.

Unfortunately, employees with bad managers may get blindsided in the evaluation with a series of negative ratings and comments for the first time all year. In that case, they should submit an objective and factual written response that goes into their personnel file.

They also should follow up with their human resources representative to carefully express their concerns about the process and lack of communication. More importantly, they should start to look for a new job because a manager who blindsides them with bad news in an annual evaluation isn’t a manager worth keeping.

Scott S. Bateman

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