Performance Evaluations from Hell - and how to survive them


Almost Everything I Know about Performance Evaluations I learned in the School of Life

Editor's note: This is a guest post from Susan C.

Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, performance evaluations seem to be a fact of working life for employees of most companies or organizations.  I don’t think I’ve ever actually met anyone who claims to love performance evaluations.  I would guess that most people, including myself, have mixed feelings about the ordeal—an observation that seems to be borne out in the research literature on the subject. I have a friend who seems to loathe them and is convinced that not only are performance evaluations a waste of time, but they actually train people to be less--rather than more--creative, innovative, independent and productive.  He’s not alone in his thinking. An increasing number of HR specialists are beginning to reach a similar conclusion.  They argue that in its current format, the practice is more destructive than constructive, and is a holdover from earlier paternalistic ideologies about the relationship between employer and employee.

My perspective on performance evaluations and my suggestions on how to deal with negative performance evaluations are grounded in my 20+ years in the workforce and some little gems of wisdom from friends and colleagues over the years.   Most of my evaluations have been fair to good, but I’ve experienced a couple of truly hellish evaluations, courtesy of bully bosses. Since I’m not an HR specialist, I thought it might be useful to supplement my personal observations with some research into what HR specialists and management consultants have to say about why performance evaluations go wrong.

The Ideal Evaluation

Ideally, performance evaluations should be little more than a “mere formality” to keep the HR department happy by completing and returning their beloved evaluation forms. In the best case scenario, your manager checks in with you informally on a regular basis and is aware of your workload, your strengths and challenges, achievements over the last year, professional development activities, and career goals.  Better yet, your supervisor has excellent leadership skills, cares about his or her staff, and has learned how to give timely, appropriate, and genuinely constructive feedback when an issue first arises so you can actually respond at the point in time when it still matters.

The Reality

It would be fabulous if the above scenario was the reality for most of us, but unfortunately that probably isn’t the case. We may currently have an excellent boss who thinks we’re equally as wonderful, but life isn’t static.  Circumstances change and the fates might well conspire to give us a mediocre boss and a crummy performance evaluation at some point in time, whether we asked for it or not. Indeed, a close friend of mine figures that you should go into any job with the understanding that at some point in your career, you will most likely be given a negative performance evaluation—no matter how hard you work or how well you perform.  My friend is neither pessimistic nor paranoid.  But he has many years of experience in the workforce and understands that the longer you’ve been in the work force and the more jobs you’ve worked at, the greater are your chances of having a bad year or encountering a bad boss.

My bad evaluation cropped up a few years ago, 20+ years into my working life.  Given that I’d already seen some bullying behaviour from this boss, I kind of expected that my evaluation that year wasn’t exactly going to be a walk in the park.  Actually it was a walk in the park (albeit a rather unpleasant park)-- compared to the events that followed.  That was the year that confirmed for me the value of good record keeping and detailed documentation.  It can be a bit tedious at times, but one day you may be very glad you had the foresight to maintain certain kinds of records.  I recommend keeping the following information from day one at any job you start:

1. A system for tracking your workload and project list. Make sure you update it on a regular basis and include information about start and end dates, delays (causes and how you dealt with them, any other important information about the project status).

2. A system for tracking vacation days, sick days and appointments.

3. Email follow-ups of any conversations about work assignments and projects. Keep hard copies in the relevant file folders.

4. Email follow-ups of any important conversations or meetings with your boss.  Outline the main points of the discussion, conclusions, decisions and any action items with their due dates.  Keep hard copies of these emails—computers have an annoying habit of crashing or vaporizing important information.

5. Print and file hard copies of any and all written praise you receive about your work or work habits. (Among other things, it’s a good mood lifter when you’re feeling blah.)

When Bad Evaluations Happen to Good Employees

Some of the  variables that contribute to a bad evaluation are clearly under our own control (life intervened and we had an off year, we overestimated our performance so we’re inevitably disappointed with the feedback we’re given, something about our job situation has changed and we’re not sure how we feel about it anymore, and so on). In these situations we need to accept responsibility for what we did or didn’t do, and start figuring out how to turn the situation around.

Your manager also has a huge role in affecting the quality of the evaluation process.  The effectiveness of the performance evaluation is going to be strongly influenced by her leadership skills, people skills and training, as well as her temperament and preferred work style (her personal work style and other styles that she’s most comfortable dealing with).

Most bosses don’t deliberately set out to conduct bad or unfair evaluations.  According to Susan Heathfield, many bosses would be much happier if they didn’t have to do performance evaluations at all: For the most part, managers apparently don’t like having to judge their staff any more than the employees appreciate feeling attacked and put on the defensive by the process. If this is so, why does this scenario happen often enough to give performance evaluations a bad name?

More often than not, managers conduct bad evaluations either because they have not been trained how to give employees constructive feedback, or their people skills leave much to be desired.  But, you ask, “Why would a company hire someone as a manager if that individual has no people skills and no idea how to give feedback?” It turns that often managers aren’t hired for their leadership abilities or people skills at all—they might get hired because of their technical expertise, or a myriad other reasons that have nothing to do with managing people. Furthermore, many companies don’t offer even basic training in leadership or constructive feedback skills to new management level appointees, so new managers are left to stumble along and figure out as best they can how to motivate and develop the members of their teams, provide timely and constructive feedback and conduct effective performance evaluations.   If managers are not given the training or feedback they need to improve their people skills, then it’s probably reasonable to expect that they will make mistakes when it’s time to do your performance evaluation.  Unfortunately, their mistakes can translate as nightmarish evaluations from your perspective.

Next week Susan will talk about how to deal with a bad performance evaluation.

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Image courtesy of Fuschia Foot