Making performance appraisals a positive process

Needless to say, not everyone looks forward to performance appraisals. Employees often worry about being criticized for not meeting expectations, and managers struggle to find the time to speak with staff - not to mention complete the paperwork.

But implementing an effective performance review process - and getting your workers to realize the value of it - can mean the difference between an average and truly great department. In fact, research by Development Dimensions International, a management consulting firm, shows that organizations with strong performance management systems are nearly 50% more likely to outperform their competitors.

Targeted guidance given during a performance appraisal can confirm for your top professionals that they are on the right track and provide significant motivation for them to take on additional responsibilities with the company, as well as encouragement to remain with the firm through the long term. And helping employees who have performed at a lower level understand in which areas they can improve helps ensure that everyone on your team is contributing to his full capacity. That, in turn, heightens your own results and the standing of your department in the eyes of company executives.

Setting the tone at the top

The overall success of your department's performance evaluation process starts with a single factor: you. If you do not take it seriously or are unwilling to invest the necessary time or effort, employees will follow your cue and disregard whatever advice and guidance is given during these meetings.

It sounds simple, but one of the best ways to demonstrate to employees the importance of performance appraisals is to plan for them. Start by approaching workers individually and establishing a time to meet when neither of you is likely to be disturbed. Set aside at least a half hour to allow for healthy discussion. Asking workers to drop by your office on an ad hoc basis or stopping by to speak with them late on a Friday afternoon sends the message that these meetings hold little significance.

Prior to meeting with members of your team, ask them to submit to you a list of accomplishments

This will allow you to identify key topics of discussion. Also consider gathering feedback from individuals with whom the person works closely, including other managers, co-workers and even outside business contacts. While these individuals don't have to play a formal role in the appraisal process, they may bring up relevant points. Consulting others is especially helpful when evaluating staff members who recently joined the team or assumed new roles so you can determine how well they fit within their new environments.

Providing critiques - and congratulations

Just because you take the review seriously doesn't mean it has to be an overly formal affair. Encourage two-way conversation, which allows the employee to raise any concerns or objections and you to gather feedback on the leadership you provide.

When providing criticism, be as specific and clear as possible. Explain your understanding of the situation in question, the outcome you had expected and the reason you would like it to be handled differently in the future. For example: John, the latest Web site update for which you were responsible was delayed by more than a week. I would prefer that you let me know when you are behind schedule so we can discuss possible solutions. Other company initiatives depend on these updates, so it is important that they are completed on time.

According to a Robert Half Technology survey, more than three quarters of workers find the feedback they receive during performance reviews valuable.

Although the meeting is an opportunity to bring to light any performance issues, dont forget it also should serve as a venue for recognizing employee accomplishments. Conducted properly, a performance review can be extremely motivating and instill extreme confidence in top-performing professionals. Be specific in your praise and, if appropriate, don't go light.

If bonuses and raises are typically announced to employees during their performance reviews, make sure the message you are conveying is consistent. Top performers should receive a significantly larger reward than average employees, and poor performers may receive no reward at all.

Establishing appropriate next steps

Most managers know that the final step in the performance review process is working with the employee to establish goals, which will serve as a basis for evaluation at the next meeting. But often these objectives are too vague, unfocused or poorly tracked to provide much use.

To avoid falling into this pattern, set specific goals that are tied to company priorities. For example, if the firm has been heavily affected by virus intrusions, you may ask the network security administrator to reduce the number of infections by 75% in the next six months. The more precise the employee's objectives, the more motivation he or she will have to achieve them and the easier it will be for both of you to track progress.

Also, make sure that employees understand not only what they are to achieve but also how they are expected to achieve it. If customers have complained about the slow response by help desk professionals, the objective these individuals must meet may be to cut call times in half. But be sure you explain that the reduction in wait time should not come at the expense of quality service.

Perhaps most importantly, make sure the goals you set for your staff members are attainable. Nothing is more demoralizing than offering to reward an employee for hitting a target that is well out of reach. If a less experienced developer is expected to learn C# over the next three months, don't ask him to achieve expert status by that time.

Perhaps the best way to instill in your employees a belief that performance review time is not to be dreaded is to make sure it doesn't arrive just once or twice a year. The best IT managers provide constant feedback by meeting informally with staffers on a regular basis to discuss current projects and challenges, checking in throughout the completion of major initiatives, and creating an open-door policy that encourages workers to voice concerns at any time.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in the North America and Europe, and offers online job search services at www.rht.com.

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