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November: Tis the Season (for Performance Evaluations)
Several faculty members met with their chairperson to describe their unhappiness with a surly administrative staff person. They described rudeness, tardiness, absenteeism and unresponsiveness to repeated requests. They begged the chairperson to replace this individual. The chairperson and department administrator reviewed the employee’s performance evaluations (PE) and found that none of the negative behaviors were documented in previous annual evaluations. The employee “met expectations” in every area, which limited the chairperson’s ability to remove and replace the employee. How did this happen? What can be done about an employee like this? How can this situation be avoided? In a word, how should performance evaluations be done?
When an employee has performed his job well, performance evaluations are a pleasure for supervisor and employee. When there have been problems, supervisors may be reluctant to confront the problems and may therefore avoid the “difficult conversation”. Or the supervisor may slant the performance evaluation with phrases that suggest, but don’t explicitly state what’s going on. They frame language to suggest the desired improvement, rather than describing the problem clearly. For example, one supervisor had a supervisee who did not pay attention to details. As a result, wrong supplies were ordered and meetings were not scheduled as requested. In the PE, the supervisor described the employee as working hard to pay more attention to details, avoiding stating that the employee had not met expectations in that area and giving examples of her shortcomings. This was unfair to the employee as she did not have a clear idea of how the supervisor viewed her performance and how important it was for her to improve her attention to detail.
Another younger employee, who felt she was doing an excellent job, was disappointed and angry that her supervisor only gave her the rating of “meets expectations”. The supervisor explained that the employee had accomplished all of the requirements of the job with professional competence but that she had not done anything above and beyond the job description. She gave the employee some concrete examples of what would be considered exceptional, setting some benchmarks for the employee to aim for in the coming year. She encouraged the employee to come up with her own suggestions.
Unrealistic expectations on the part of employees, especially younger employees, may be becoming more common. In the Wall Street Journal of October 12, 2008, Ben Rosen, a professor of Organizational Behavior at The University of North Carolina wrote “Gen Y wanted a lot of feedback…These younger workers grew up where everyone gets a trophy.” Few perceive themselves as “average” today.
The New York Times of May 18, 2010 mentioned Samuel A.Culbert, a clinical psychologist who teaches at UCLA. Mr. Culbert wrote a book Get Rid of the Performance Review! in which he argues that annual reviews create high levels of stress for workers but end up making everybody (bosses and subordinates) less effective because of the stress they create. The stress may undermine performance and contribute to health problems such as high blood pressure, anxiety and depression. Researchers have long known that the major factor in job satisfaction, more than salary and benefits, is the relationship between a worker and an immediate supervisor. Workers at all levels of an organization tend to be miserable if they believe their boss doesn’t like them or thinks they are not performing.
Knowing that PEs are stressful but important (and required by the organization) raises the stakes for the supervisor. A truly effective PE preserves good will between supervisor and subordinate at all levels of an organization. It is a delicate task fraught with landmines. It requires careful preparation that integrates concrete, specific feedback and guidance combined with tact and encouragement. As long as the supervisor wants to keep the employee motivated in the job, s/he should put time into thinking through all aspects of the performance and how to communicate his/her perceptions clearly but tactfully, giving examples that the employee will remember. The employee should be asked to provide his/her goals and accomplishments for the year. At the end of the PE meeting, the supervisor should ask: “What are you going to take away from our meeting today?” to see how much the employee has absorbed.
Going back to our surly employee, the supervisor needs to make the employee aware of what behavior is unacceptable. This goal can be achieved with frequent brief meetings as described above. The supervisor should also consider the possibility that the employee may have personal issues, such as family conflict or depression, which may impair her performance. If that seems likely, he should refer her to the Faculty Staff Assistance Office. However, if the behavior does not improve after a reasonable time, the supervisor and chair should consult with Human Resources and the Faculty Staff Assistance Office, especially if termination appears to be the solution.
by Bonnie Teitleman, LICSW