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Evaluating employee evaluations

Nov 1, 2005 12:00 AM

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Gorelick's Management

I can count on one hand the number of companies that I’ve seen engage in fair, timely, meaningful and competent evaluations. In most cases, evaluations are viewed as perfunctory by both the supervisor/manager and the subordinate. Too often, the outcome of an evaluation session is acrimony and erosion of teamwork.

There’s an inherent contradiction in the concept of the employee performance evaluation. On the one hand, teamwork has become an almost semi-religious movement in American business during the past 30 years. A recent study of senior managers found that the willingness and ability to function well as part of a team is the most valued attribute in job applicants. Ambition is ranked first by only 28 percent of managers.

Despite the rhetoric, American business does not test for teamwork and evaluates employees based on individual contributions. In fact, many pre-employment tests for sales candidates value the ability to work alone. I know of few companies that include salespeople in their otherwise company-wide performance evaluation program. The prevailing wisdom is that salespeople know how they’re doing: They get a monthly report.

In my opinion, only two things can render performance evaluations programs ineffective:

  • Neither the supervisor nor the subordinate takes the evaluation seriously.
  • Both the supervisor and the subordinate take the evaluation seriously.
In the former case, the supervisor/manager views evaluations as an interruption in more important daily activities. In the latter case, confrontation might occur and the supervisor/manager hasn’t been trained to deal with the situation.

It takes two to tango
For years, I’ve written that a poorly or perfunctorily conducted performance evaluation program actually might be worse than no program at all. The night before an evaluation session, many supervisors go to bed hoping to get through the meeting without confrontation, assigning numerical ratings with which the subordinate generally agrees, and not having to answer questions about a salary adjustment that he or she is not empowered to address definitively.

With performance evaluations, the focus is on ratings, many assigned arbitrarily and without explanation.

I suggest that each year, every staff member be given a handbook explaining the objectives, timing, behavior, preparation and available appeal process. Emphasis should be placed on the fact that the session should be seen as a dialogue, not one-way, indisputable feedback from management. It should be stated clearly that the term “performance evaluation” does not adequately describe the intent or scope of the session.

Both parties should clearly understand that the purpose of the session is incremental process improvement at the personal level. This means that a discussion of past performance is most relevant if it is the prologue to a dialogue about:

  • The strategic, differentiated mission of the company. Many individuals need context, an understanding of their respective roles in the “big picture.”
  • The skills, aspirations and interests of the employee. Many employees have ambitions or changes in life style and family situations they would like to formally communicate.
  • The training and educational opportunities available to the subordinate.
  • Questions the subordinate might have about operations or employment opportunities in other areas of the company.
  • Positive performance as well as areas for improvement.
Out, damned misnomer!
This leads me to suggest that the term “performance evaluation” be banished forever from the lexicon of American business. A better, more descriptive and positive description: Individual Development Plan. The title implies that the focus will be on customized, individualized feedback, not an expeditious completion of forms with minimal disagreement.

Many readers might question the decision to devote this month’s column to a subject that might not be seen as being in the critical path of success in the graphic arts industry. I believe that adoption of an Individual Development Plan program for all staff members is of strategic importance because of two industry conditions:

  • The need to retain good staff members given the aging of the workforce and the difficulty recruiting competent replacements.
  • The great need for “serious” cross-training due to the growing seasonality of the print industry. Cross-training can help deal with the staffing implication of growing seasonality.
Consider an Individual Development Plan program. In the long run, it will improve employee retention, improve communication between sessions, and provide your organization with an improved ability to achieve its objectives.

Dick Gorelick is president of Gorelick & Associates and the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation. He can be reached at

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