26 June 2012

The ‘dreaded' performance review: tips from a veteran

As we are about to close out the 2011/12 financial year, there will be plenty of performance reviews/appraisals/evaluations undertaken throughout this month and next month by recruitment agency owners and managers. 

Some of these reviews will demonstrate preparation, will use valid and objective criteria, will be effectively communicated and the outcome will be highly valued and beneficial to the employee. 

Unfortunately, many reviews will be rushed and reveal a lack of preparation, will rely on unsubstantiated opinions, will be poorly communicated and the outcome will be both demotivating and unhelpful to the employee. 

My experience of performance reviews as an employee was mostly positive. The exception being when a ‘360 degree performance review' had been conducted without my knowledge. I was not permitted to see the results nor the questions that were asked. The way the subsequent ‘results' were used in my performance review meeting made me wonder as to the point of the meeting, so one-sided and demotivating was the conversation. 

If you have responsibility for conducting an employee performance review (PR) meeting with an employee, here are a few tips from a veteran of both sides of the conversation. 

1. The PR document:
  • Simple categories work best (eg Activities, Results, Skills, Behaviours, Aspirations).
  • Ensure the full year's high pay-off activities (KPIs) and results are near the beginning of the document. The employee, not the manager, should complete these figures.
  • Have a rating scale that is simple and clear (eg exceeded expectations, met expectations, close to meeting expectations, did not meet expectations).
  • Ask questions that request a factual answer (tip #1: completing a PR document should be like answering a behavioural interview question - you need evidence).
  • Ensure the PR document asks for sufficient information to allow a full understanding of;
o    where the consultant is at now
o    the progress the consultant has made (or not made) since the last review
o    the specific goals the consultant has for the upcoming review period (and more general goals for the longer term)
o    how they intend to accomplish these goals (and the resources needed)
2. Before the first PR meeting:
  • Two weeks in advance of the PR meeting, provide the PR document to the employee and ask them to complete a self-evaluation and have it back to you within 7 days (tip #2: advise all employees that any base salary increase will be delayed by two months for each day the form is returned late. You'll never have to chase late PR forms again).
  • Allocate uninterrupted time to complete your evaluation of the employee, ensuring you have collected powerful examples of things you wish to highlight (both the good and not-so-good) in both the PR document and the PR meeting.
  • Based on the differences between your assessment and the employee's self-assessment, note where the more challenging or difficult aspects of the PR meeting are likely to be and prepare accordingly.
3. At the first PR meeting
  • Ask lots of questions: The consultant should be doing 90% of the talking. If you are doing most of the talking, I promise you the meeting is not going well.
  • Probe vague, defensive or evasive answers: If you don't get to the bottom of things in a PR meeting, you never will.
  • Talk straight: If there are difficult issues to discuss, confront them directly and specifically. Don't leave any doubt about what the issues are, their seriousness and the potential consequences if they are not effectively addressed.
  • Highlight specific improvements: Ego-centric consultants working at a fast pace every day are unlikely to realise specific improvements, outside of very tangible areas such as activities and results.
  • Focus on the ‘how' of success: Building a $100k p.a. billing client is great but the real learning comes from helping the consultant understand all the very specific action over a period of weeks or months that they went through to bring the client on board originally and then build them into a key account.
  • Don't discuss a shopping list of areas for improvement (although you no doubt have such a list): Focus on one or two core areas for improvement and talk about these in depth.
  • Don't use hearsay in discussing difficult areas (eg Sarah said you have been too soft with client fee negotiations): Only make comments from your direct experience of that consultant. Using hearsay risks running into the predictable defensiveness of ‘you weren't there and that's not what happened'.
  • Express belief in the consultant: If you don't have that belief then exit them from the business immediately, don't waste time having a superficial PR meeting. (Tip #3: An employee will almost always rise or fall based on the belief they experience from their manager).
  • Discuss goals and action plans: Have the employee leave the meeting with the task of completing their comments about the PR meeting and also (if required) revising their stated goals and action plans.
4. At the second PR meeting (held within 3-5 days of the first PR meeting)
  • Discuss the employee's documented response to the first PR meeting. Confront them if you believe the comments are not reflective of their real opinion.
  • Agree on goals and the action plan.
  • Agree on ongoing review and accountability for these goals and plans (if that's not already clear).
  • Test the employee's commitment to the goals and action plan.
  • Finish the meeting with a further expression of belief in the employee's capability.
The success of the whole performance review process should be quickly evident; if the employee is consistently demonstrating a higher level of skill and attitude (to you, their colleagues, their clients and/or their candidates) then the performance review process has been a success. 

If not, then I suggest you look back at what you did, or didn't do, during that employee's performance review process and make some changes for next time. 

Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, and people's careers (especially yours), depend on it. 

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