Employee Performance Appraisals: Don't Fear The Process, Set Standards
It is a frustrating fact that even poorly performing employees often win lawsuits for discrimination or wrongful termination. They often claim they didn’t know what was expected of them, they didn’t know they weren’t meeting job standards, or they didn’t know that a termination or demotion could happen to them.
How can an employee who is dismissed for sub-par performance win such a lawsuit? Often, it is because the supervisor failed to communicate in a clear manner, or at all, exactly what job standards applied and what the particular employee needed to do to meet those standards.
Many managers and supervisors are terrified of the performance appraisal process — the guidelines by which they review their employees’ work. The most frequent reason for ineffective or non-existent performance appraisals is the absence of specific, measurable standards with which to perform a viable evaluation. This creates business inefficiencies and very real legal risks.
Appraising employee performance with reference to a set of written standards, which mirror the job descriptions, is a valuable approach. Standards-based appraisals are an especially effective way to document that employment decisions were made fairly and without illegal prejudice.
Objective standards, communicated clearly and consistently to employees, are critical. Employees should understand clearly what is expected of them. Clear standards have the following attributes:
EVERY POSITION SHOULD HAVE PERFORMANCE STANDARDS. To say that written standards cannot be prepared for a position is to say that the supervisor does not know what to expect of an employee and that the employee’s work cannot be objectively evaluated.
STANDARDS SHOULD COVER SPECIFIC POSITIONS, NOT BROAD CLASSES OF POSITIONS. Even though certain employees may have the same job title, different standards should apply for these employees if significant differences in operating practices or working conditions exist. For example, a clerk typist in accounting and one in public relations would perform different work, probably in different quantities. Only when the duties and working conditions of positions are identical should a single set of standards apply.
TASK/RESPONSIBILITY STATEMENTS NEED TO BE REVIEWED BEFORE OVERALL STANDARDS CAN BE WRITTEN. A task is a major unit of work or significant component of the job. The task statement should be broad enough to serve as a significant tool for evaluating an employee’s performance, but not so broad that it becomes impossible to develop standards for the task.
It is important to avoid overly broad statements such as “does routine clerical work,” which may, in the case of a clerk, describe the entire job. Statements of overall responsibility do not give enough help in defining a job. In general, statements with words such as “supervises,” “coordinates” or “directs” probably describe overall responsibilities rather than tasks.
On the other hand, overly narrow statements should also be avoided. For example, “places correspondence in file folders” is only a sub-task of the major task “maintains correspondence files.”
Relatively minor tasks should be omitted. Remember that what is a major task for one employee may be a minor task to another employee. For example, the maintenance of correspondence files, while a significant task for a clerk, is only a minor task for other employees.
STANDARDS SHOULD APPLY TO SPECIFIC, SIGNIFICANT TASKS OF THE POSITION. If the employee’s responsibilities are expressed in vague, general language, it will be difficult — perhaps impossible — to write clear, meaningful standards for the job. Wherever possible, tasks should be expressed in concrete terms that describe definite actions that the employee takes.
EVERY TASK SHOULD HAVE ONE OR MORE PERFORMANCE STANDARDS BY WHICH ACCOMPLISHMENT OF THE TASK CAN BE JUDGED. Standards should specify what level of performance is expected in relation to a given task, that is, what the employee is expected to do, and how well he or she is expected to do it. Performance standards should serve as benchmarks that tell the human-resources professional and employee when and under what conditions the employee’s performance of the task is satisfactory.
STANDARDS SHOULD REFLECT A FULLY ACCEPTABLE OR A SATISFACTORY LEVEL OF PERFORMANCE. Standards should be attainable and should reflect what is expected of a fully trained and competent employee. Standards must be high enough for the work unit to accomplish its objectives and low enough for competent employees to reach them.
STANDARDS SHOULD BE EXPRESSED PRECISELY. The more precisely standards are stated, the easier it will be to evaluate performance and give employees guidance on what is expected of them. For example, “responds to requests for estimates in accordance with established deadlines” is not as precise as “responds to requests for estimates within two days of receiving a request.”
Patricia S. Eyres is an experienced attorney, with over 18 years defending businesses in the courtroom. She is a full-time professional speaker and author. Her most popular presentation is “Leading Within Legal Limits™.” She can be reached at www.PreventLitigation.com or at 1-800-LIT-MGMT.
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