Experts on employee management are divided regarding whether employers should conduct annual performance appraisals of staff. Judging by the show of hands at the recent Judicial College seminar on office management, Indiana’s judiciary is also divided in its use of performance appraisals. The purpose of this article is to succinctly set forth the pros and cons so each court may make its own decision.
A substantial number of management and human resource experts no longer use traditional performance appraisals. The reasons for abandoning the tradition include: most people dislike giving and receiving the appraisals, it takes a significant amount of time, it will produce an inaccurate record, and appraisals are a poor substitute for good management. At least one acknowl
edged business management expert, W. Edwards Deming, argued that performance appraisals breed resentment and cause poor morale even for the best-performing employees. Take the example of an employee who is rated high in multiple categories, but is given a “meets expectations” in attendance. More likely than not, the employee will be angry about the “meets expectation” rating for attendance, rather than being motivated by the high marks in other categories. The trend against performance appraisals is increasing. UCLA professor Samuel Culbert, in collaboration with Lawrence Rout of the Wall Street Journal, has written a book, Get Rid of the Performance Review, in which he excoriates the common rationales for giving performance appraisals. Of course, Dr. Culbert and others who argue against performance appraisals are not dispensing with the need to assess employee performance. Rather, they promote giving on-going, reciprocal feedback and working directly with each employee to promote a sense of trust, true teamwork and improved performance from both supervisor and subordinate.
Nevertheless, performance appraisals are a strong tradition in the office workplace. There are few white-collar souls who have not felt the dread of meeting with a supervisor to receive a performance appraisal. The number one reason for giving performance appraisals is to determine who will receive raises and how much. Few government organizations have the luxury of giving raises in the current economy, which means the primary reason for giving performance appraisals does not currently exist for most courts. The next major reason for performance appraisals does not change with the economy: to aid employee development. A performance appraisal is an opportunity for a supervisor and subordinate to share observations, give feedback, set objectives and goals, and discuss issues and concerns. For many supervisors, none of this will be accomplished without the structure of a formal appraisal and evaluation session.
If an employer decides to conduct performance appraisals, the employer must accomplish the process correctly or the performance appraisals could become litigation landmines for the employer. Too often the only written records of performance in employees’ files are annual or infrequent performance appraisals. These can become primary documentary evidence in a discrimination trial. If the supervisor has not done a good job of documentation, the supervisor essentially makes the employee’s case against the employer. “Isn’t it true that in 2009, you rated John as highly dependable in all categories?” Therefore, if a court chooses to do formal evaluations, it is crucial that the court does the evaluation correctly.
Keys to preparing an accurate and valuable performance appraisal include:
The performance appraisal should not be done in a vacuum, nor should it reflect only the performance of the last thirty days. Throughout the year, the supervisor should be giving feedback to the employee on performance, good and bad. Simple notes stored in a fact file only for the supervisor’s eyes can be kept to document this feedback. The employee should not be surprised at what is written in the evaluation because the employee should have heard it all previously.
Don’t Squeeze It In.
Do not conduct the performance appraisal until the rater has had time to give due consideration to the judgment calls in a performance review. Then the supervisor/subordinate meeting needs to be scheduled when there is plenty of time to discuss the ratings. Appraisals cannot be done in a hurry.
Inaccuracy is probably the most common error and the one most likely to cause future problems. Subjectivity cannot be eliminated from an appraisal, but there must be a thorough assessment of performance in multiple categories, good and bad. For example, when an employee has a habit of coming in late, this needs to be recorded even if the employee’s overall performance means that the tardiness is only a minor issue. It is much easier to deal with an issue and/or keep it from becoming a major problem if it is at least noted and a brief discussion is held.
Each person wants to be a valuable asset to the individual’s organization. No one aspires to be a slacker. Performance appraisals should be used to have a meaningful conversation about the employee’s strengths and how to use those assets to most help both the organization and the employee. A good performance appraisal will provide the employee with a roadmap on how to be of greater value to the organization.
A supervisor who has taken the time to do a performance appraisal should keep that good management momentum and follow through with informal meetings and notes. If this is done, the next year’s evaluation should be easier as well. In addition, the overall performance should have improved due to the consistent constructive criticism and praise.
Each judicial supervisor will need to make an individual determination as to whether or not to give performance appraisals. Giving or not giving performance appraisals is only one component in management of employees. All supervisors must ensure that each employee understands the job, each employee is provided the tools needed to accomplish assigned tasks, and each employee is recognized for positive achievements. In an ideal office, every employee will be dedicated to meeting the goals of the court. This won’t happen unless the court encourages, mentors and coaches the employees as part of a team serving the public.