Michael McCafferty, FEI Senior Account Manager

Last month, I was having a discussion with a manager, Jim*, who wanted advice on how to talk with one of his employees, Bob. Jim’s company had recently replaced their outdated structure of annual performance evaluations with a new system that emphasized frequent feedback and incorporated quarterly employee check-ins.

According to Jim, “Bob has been here for years, and always does good work. He knows his job – he even trained me on a few things! – and exceeds expectations every year. I’m just not sure what the company wants me to say to him. It’s probably going to be a pretty short discussion.”

Like a lot of managers, Jim was used to the “old” way of doing things: A once-a-year meeting in which the manager and the employee reviewed the previous year’s performance and then re-evaluated and updated scoring criteria based on performance to date. Jim’s not alone. Many organizations still rely on this kind of annual exercise to rate workforces, and usually tie the results to things like promotions and annual pay increases. But are employees getting
good information?

If Jim’s comments are any indicator – and recent research by the Society for Human Resource Management says they are, with over 90 percent of employers still using annual performance evaluations – the answer is no. These annual evaluations are frustrating and unsatisfying for managers and employees alike. Common complaints from employees fall under three
notable “effects”:

  • Recency Effect. Feedback covering the last four-to-six weeks, or what the manager can remember, as opposed to evaluating the whole year.
  • Leniency Effect. Sometimes managers want to be “nice” or well-liked, shying away from giving useful, practical feedback that can help employees grow.
  • Central Tendency Effect. Not every employee is the same, nor are they expected to be, but failing to reward good performance or to hold under-performers accountable can kill motivation for all involved.

Thankfully, this trend seems to be changing for the better. A growing number of organizations are using quarterly check-ins with managers and employees to encourage more frequent dialogue about expectations, goal-setting and corrective feedback for needed improvements. One of the main goals of this regular conversation is to avoid any surprises when it comes time to discuss merit increases or promotions.

As more organizations move to this way of discussing organizational performance, guidance and support will be vital to an effective transition. Training on how to use new systems fairly and consistently is important, but even more important is training on how to anticipate resistance and help employees and managers get more comfortable with this type of open, honest and ongoing communication.

Together, Jim and I discussed a few ideas for starting the evaluation conversation with some icebreakers, talking about whatever Bob wanted to discuss. If Bob seemed nervous (and many employees and managers are in these discussions), Jim could remind him that the conversation was meant to be an opportunity to ask questions, make suggestions and talk about what he’d been working on. Maybe Bob would like more opportunities to train other employees, or cross-train in a new function?

The more we talked, the more Jim realized that he and Bob actually had a lot to discuss!

*Names changed for confidentiality.