How to Use This Book in Order to Save Time and Write Compelling Performance Appraisals
If you've purchased this book, you're serious about strengthening your written communication skills and developing your subordinates. The truth of the matter is that most performance reviews in corporate America are drafted without much thought and are submitted well after the deadline-not much of a motivational tool for workers longing for appreciation for a job well done. Yet taking the time to formally appraise employees' performance once a year has much more significance than many managers realize.
In poll after poll, workers rank pay fourth or fifth on the list of critical workplace factors-well below the critical areas of open communication and recognition for a job well done. American management teams fail to recognize the critical importance of ongoing feedback and staff development in employee retention matters-even when there are scarce dollars available for merit increase pools. The optimal leadership style provides ongoing feedback day in and day out on a regular and predictable basis. The best people managers realize that by shifting responsibility for employee performance evaluations back to their staff members, they take themselves out of the role of unilateral decision maker and disciplinarian and place themselves into the role of career mentor and coach.
In addition, managers who stand out among their peers recognize that the Development section of any performance appraisal is the most critical piece of the process because it constructs a blueprint for employee growth and learning. The learning curve is indeed the glue that binds people to companies. Despite small merit increase pools or opportunities for vertical promotion available in any company at any particular time, satisfied employees will perform at their best and remain loyal when they feel connected, sense that they make a difference at work, and add critical skills and experiences to their resumes.
They say that people "join companies and leave managers." It's also said that the difference between an active job seeker and a passive job seeker is one bad day in the office. If your most respected critic were to objectively evaluate your leadership abilities and staff development skills, how do you feel you would rank if were evaluated according to the following criteria:
How effective are you at delegating to and motivating your staff?
How consistent are you in putting their career and development needs above your own in a goodwill attempt to help them build their resumes and prepare for the next step in progression in their careers-at your company or elsewhere?
How well do you address performance achievements and problems day in and day out so that subordinates understand what is expected of them and how success is measured in your group?
The annual performance appraisal process is the once-a-year validation that someone is making a positive difference-that their contributions over 365 days of work are formally recognized and celebrated. Yet, too many managers fill in annual appraisal forms in a perfunctory fashion, looking at the process as a bothersome, yet mandatory task. Enlightened managers, on the other hand, make their jobs much easier by delegating appropriately, listening attentively, and having fun at work. It's not that hard to transition to "enlightened management" status: All it takes is a willingness to rethink your role in your company, your influence over those you supervise, and your ability to bring out the best in others by motivating them to reach beyond their comfort zone.
Remember that motivation is internal. You're not responsible for motivating your staff, per se; people are responsible for motivating themselves. You are, however, responsible for creating a work environment in which people can motivate themselves and find new ways of reinventing their work in light of your company's changing needs. To that end, this book will serve as a handy time saver, a narrative assistant, and an insightful guide into new ways of recognizing and rewarding performance.
How to Use This Book
It is often the case that managers avoid or delay written communication tasks that may appear to be confrontational. Similar to a book I've written called 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline and Termination, this book's key purpose is to help you find the right words and descriptive phrases to communicate your thoughts and perceptions in a concrete manner for specific situations.
In Part I, we'll address the most commonly rated performance factors, or "core competencies," that a majority of companies use to assess their workers. Included among the core competencies are the topics of "managerial style" and "personal style"-often the most difficult issues to describe in an annual performance review. The phrases in these sections fit a variety of interpersonal and managerial styles, commitment levels, pace, need for structure, emotional intelligence, and ability to prioritize and juggle multiple tasks. Refer to these sections any time you have a difficult time finding the right words to describe an individual's preferences, inclinations, peculiarities, or other outstanding features. You might just find a special way of phrasing something that, up to now, you've had a hard time identifying and describing in others.
For each of the commonly rated performance factors in Part I, we provide descriptive phrases that can be used to evaluate historical performance, organized in two sections:
Meets/Exceeds Expectations Needs Improvement
For all of the core competencies we also provide a third section called "Goals." This section provides multiple examples of development plans for outlining key areas of future growth and learning. These phrases will help you structure your recommendations for employee improvement over the coming review period. As with the two other sections, you could simply use these statements "as is" or customize them for your particular needs.
Simply stated, forward-looking development plans give you a process to prevent future performance problems and to create an environment in which employees could motivate themselves. That, more than anything, will give you peace of mind and turn you into a motivator and coach rather than a unilateral disciplinarian and decision maker. Your employees will benefit too as they're given the freedom and discretion to self-monitor and self-correct in an empowered environment. There's no greater formula for enlightened leadership.
Whereas Part I covers general core competencies, in Part II we address the functional components of many common positions in Corporate America, including positions in sales, marketing, finance, legal, human resources, operations, information technology, and manufacturing. It is important to be able to benchmark particular functions and responsibilities that are common in such universal positions, and to address performance expectations for each.
There are four appendixes in the book. Appendixes A and B provide useful lists of high impact verbs and adverbs that will prompt you when finding just the right word tends to escape you. Appendix C is a brief discussion of merit increases and the five-point grading scale. Appendix D is a short index of the titles and roles that appear in this book.
In essence, in this book you have a handy library of practical, ready-to-use phrases that will help you acknowledge outstanding job performance, address substandard work quality, and outline developmental opportunities for your direct reports. In addition to saving time, you'll strengthen your self-confidence and distinguish yourself in writing as a leader and career builder.
The Performance Management Cycle
There are three components of the Performance Management Cycle:
1. Goal setting and planning
2. Ongoing feedback and coaching
3. Appraisal and reward
The annual performance appraisal clearly speaks to the third issue, but appraisal and reward can't be accomplished in a vacuum. That third stage is the culmination resulting from ongoing efforts in the first two stages. The performance management cycle is a continuum leading to a particular resolution in the final (third) step, but all three stages are intrinsically linked to the end result-the performance appraisal and associated merit increase (reward).
Annual performance appraisals are not meant to be a paper chase-a mandatory exercise that creates a snapshot of your impressions as a supervisor about a subordinate's work. Instead, they should be a collaborative effort that builds on open communication and constant feedback. Thus, investing in goal setting should be a two-way communication: Employees who have advanced input into their own career development will typically buy in to the suggestions much more readily than when those goals are imposed from above. And remember, no matter how "perfectly written" these goals are on the actual performance appraisal form, they'll be useless without ongoing communication throughout the review period.
So keep a copy of each of your staff member's annual reviews in your desk, and make sure they do the same. Develop a habit of reviewing the status of performance achievement and skills development on a quarterly basis. You'll find that your business relationships will be focused, you'll never again feel like you're flying blind, and your subordinates will have less of a need for ongoing supervision.
Ten Tips to Maximize Your Performance Appraisal Documentation Skills
Whenever you pull this book down from your bookshelf as you're preparing to write a subordinate's performance review, keep the following rules in mind:
Rule 1: There should be very few surprises in the annual review.
This is a "total recall" document reflecting twelve months of work. If something totally new needs to be surfaced now, you probably didn't do a thorough enough job communicating with the employee throughout the review period.
So sharing performance concerns for the first time during the performance appraisal should be the exception, not the rule. Still, sometimes it may be necessary to do so, even though that may appear to "blind side" the employee. Nothing is more demotivating than finding out that your overall performance didn't meet company expectations when you thought you were doing fine. Typical complaints sound like this:
"I can't believe my boss. She gave me an overall review score of 2 out of 5, meaning that I didn't meet expectations. It would have been nice if she'd told me some time over the past year that I needed to improve in a particular area. She's always so nicey-nice and perky to your face, and then she stabs you in the back on the annual review. Well, I have a pending meeting with the division president to discuss my supervisor's shortcomings, and this review she gave me will be the first item of discussion."
To avoid such lose-lose situations, whenever you're faced with documenting new issues for the first time in an annual review, acknowledge in writing that the matter hasn't been formally brought to the employee's attention beforehand. For example, "I recognize that we haven't formally discussed ..., but I felt it appropriate to bring this issue to your attention during this annual performance review because...."
Assuming you have a compelling reason to include brand new information in a document that covers an entire year's performance, this open and honest approach will make your documentation appear to be more objective and evenhanded. More importantly, the employee may perceive the entire matter as ultimately fairer because the disclaimer at least acknowledges that this is new terrain.
Rule 2: Review the employee's prior year performance review(s) before attempting to draft a new appraisal.
Performance reviews aren't meant to be conducted in a vacuum. They only make sense if they logically follow the prior year's performance appraisal notes. Therefore, look to prior reviews for areas of particular strengths, weaknesses, or areas for development. Which areas have improved? Which areas have remained stagnant and in need of further development? What's the overall performance trend when comparing this year to last year?
Rule 3: Understand how documentation can be used against your company if composed the wrong way.
Here's a special consideration: When employees are terminated for cause and bring wrongful termination actions against prior companies, judges and arbitrators look to the consistency in a company's written communication in order to justify the termination and determine which party prevails. This written record is typically found in the form of written warnings and annual performance reviews, laid out side by side on a table as exhibits. But which one is more important in an arbitrator's eyes: the annual review or the written warning?
Generally speaking, the annual appraisal is given more weight in legal deliberations because it covers an entire year's work. A written warning, in comparison, could simply be the result of one bad day in the office or a short-term string of thoughtless acts or omissions. Think of it this way: A written warning typically functions to break the chain of positive performance evaluations that's been documented over a number of years. Still, the annual appraisal is generally viewed as the "anchor" document that evidences the company's formal communication record with its worker.
In comparison, the written warning serves to reestablish and redirect the company's written communication record by placing an individual on notice that failure to provide immediate and sustained improvement may result in further disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal. Disciplinary consequences written this way clearly state that an individual's position is in serious jeopardy of being lost. It would subsequently be very difficult for plaintiff attorneys to argue that their client (your ex-employee) was denied workplace due process because the individual couldn't discern-based on your company's formal communication record-how serious the situation had become.
The question you have to ask, of course, is whether one written warning or multiple warnings will be necessary to justify a termination. That can only be answered on a case by case basis, depending on an individual's tenure, historical performance record, and protected category status. Remember, however, that you have a lot more discretion to terminate or issue a final written warning for a first-time "conduct" offense (like theft or insubordination) than for a "performance" infraction (like substandard work quality). In the case of performance infractions, you'll typically be expected to provide workers with all the steps of progressive discipline typically accorded under your company's policies and past practices, which could include written and final written warnings as well as suspensions, in some cases.
However, if written warnings are subsequently followed by a positive annual performance review showing that the employee has improved and now meets company expectations, then that positive performance evaluation will, in essence, nullify the written warning issued during the review period. So if you have any remote hesitations about an individual's ability to make it in your department or company in the upcoming year because of his subpar job performance or inappropriate workplace conduct, document it! You should grade the individual as "not meeting expectations" in the "Overall Score" section at the end of the performance appraisal form. Otherwise, the positive record that you create today will make it harder to terminate the individual tomorrow.