By UpCounsel Employment Attorney Erin McClarty

There are few processes that managers and their employees dread more than the employee evaluation. Ranging in complexity, timing and length, a consistent trend across industries is the confusion that surrounds evaluations and their underutilization.

Still, there are tenets for designing, conducting and reflecting on evaluations that hold true for companies regardless of size. These tenets not only allow companies to differentiate themselves during the evaluation process, but also empower them to use the process as a means of catapulting forward. Employee evaluations, when handled properly, can cultivate employee loyalty and retention as well as gather information on the health of the company.

As your company ramps up its evaluation process for this year, a few things you’ll want to keep in mind are:

The Ground Rules

  1. The key to managing employees through the evaluation process is to remember they’re human. It sounds simple enough, but in the bustle of policies managers can forget they’re dealing with real people. It’s important employees feel they’re treated individually and not formulaically.
  2. Never forget the purpose of employee evaluations: development and documentation. While some managers feel pressure to avoid conflict by rating employees high, this presents a problem if existing issues get worse. Evaluations are only as good as they are accurate.
  3. Evaluation time isn’t the time to build relationships. Build evaluation into day to day operations with a culture where managers have an existing relationship with employees. This helps with nervousness accompanying the evaluation process, and keeps employees from being blindsided by less than stellar news.

Design Rules

  1. Don’t doom evaluations by forgetting to get employee buy-in. A great way to get buy-in is to have employees assess themselves. Also, instead of focusing on rigid objectives, have employees to focus on growth. What lessons have they learned? What were major wins of the year?
  2. Make the evaluation process simple. The more complicated the process is, the less seriously people will take it and the quicker they’ll want to move through it.
  3. Remember, one size won’t fit all. There may be laws relating to the interaction, the sharing of information, documentation or feedback in an evaluation that will differ depending on where an employee is. Where companies cross geographical boundaries of any sort, they have to adjust to and accommodate these differences.

The Evaluation

  1. During feedback meetings, discourage managers from starting the discussion with problems. Ease the employee in, and have them talk about the amazing things they accomplished. Have the manager reinforce what’s been listed with a summary of all the good the manager has seen.
  2. Once a manager gets into concerns, encourage a growth mindset by framing these as opportunities. Challenge managers to watch how much time is spent on the negative vs. the positive. I always encourage managers to script out what they plan to say ahead of time, or at least have a general outline.
  3. Be specific with feedback. When discussing opportunities for growth, managers must provide specific instances of times when different resolutions could have been used and what a preferred approach would have been.
  4. Along those same lines, remember evaluations are a legal record. Written reviews should be clear and thorough, with no inflammatory, biased or discriminatory language. When it comes to discipline, record-keeping is key. Rather than stating the, “employee shows up late” reference the policy. Document when the employee has been late and by how much. How was the policy re-communicated to them?
  5. Collaboratively develop a plan for what can be done in the coming year to support an employee’s growth, along with timelines. The manager should do part of this work, but an employee should have an opportunity to make their own suggestions as well. What does the employee need to feel supported?
  6. Managers must watch their words. When we’re anxious or uncomfortable, we tend to overpromise. For example, telling employees “not to worry,” and that they, “won’t get fired” could turn out to be false promises. Remind managers that making statements like these create implied contracts that can alter the relationship the company has with its employees, making it hard to terminate if problems arise.
  7. If an employee has serious performance concerns, have a manager discuss them with someone from HR present. Having a witness take notes (especially someone a little more removed from the situation) makes sure nothing is missed.

By keeping an eye on the big(ger) picture, with planning, an employee evaluation can become much less painful and much more fruitful. Throughout the process, keep relevant stakeholders involved, namely Human Resources and Legal Counsel, and make it clear to managers they can reach out to stakeholders if there are any questions. That way, evaluations are not only impactful, but a company can also ensure that the process complies with all relevant laws.

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About the author

Erin McClarty

Erin McClarty

Erin spent several years as counsel for Fortune 500 companies, with clients spanning the world. Now, Erin has her own firm dedicated to working with businesses, nonprofits, foundations and investors who want to have a positive impact. Working with social impact organizations isn't "a" thing she does, it's "the" thing she does.

From business planning, strategy, board development and funds research to formation, contracts, compliance and day to day legal concerns. Erin's firm ensures anyone who wants to have a positive impact on the community can plant grow and thrive that seed, from idea until the next challenge.

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