Annual evaluations should be a thing of the past. Why? Because they pose the perfect opportunity for supervisors to dump their frustrations with the people they supervise, without taking the time to provide valuable feedback and coaching that can help them improve their performance.
The workplace needs periodic evaluations of staff to support compensation, as well as in helping to make promotion and retention decisions. Evaluations are also a powerful tool to ascertain how attorneys are performing against the overall goals of the company.
Performance evaluations should be where conversations about improvement start, instead of a punitive measure used to track failures and struggles with growth. Changing how firms view employee evaluations and how the evaluations are used in the key to having them become more than busywork to satisfy the HR department.
The art of performance evaluations
Performance evaluations should be performed frequently enough that both those issuing the evaluations and those who receive them can benefit. Annual evaluations are far too broad in scope, and a year is plenty of time for bad habits and poor performance to become deeply ingrained.
Negative reviews exacerbate problems and create hard feelings instead of the intended purpose of coaching and improvement. More frequent reviews, with a narrow focus, such as what is working and what needs improvement, offer far more opportunities to open honest dialogues about problems.
The problems with annual reviews include:
- The supervisor and staff member have an entire year of potential miscommunication, which can create division and strife.
- Over the course of a year, few supervisors are keeping copious notes of praise and cringe-worthy performances. The review will probably only encompass the last month or two before the review.
- It is difficult to change the way you have been doing something for a year, and staff can feel sandbagged if they did not realize there was a problem.
- Everyone looks upon them as an HR form that just needs the boxes checked instead of a legitimate instrument of change.
- Overly broad language, such as:
- Performance deficiencies—how is an employee supposed to determine what it is about their performance that is deficient? Improvement rest in knowing precisely what the other party needs to see from you.
- Insufficient client development—are there clearly established goals for client-development? If not, then what are the examples of client development you want to see the staff member imitate?
- Has problems getting along with colleagues—again, the lack of specificity makes it difficult to create an improvement strategy. Is the staff member overly critical of others? Do they claim credit for work they did not do? How can you expect improvement when you do not clearly define the problem?
- Too much wasted time—does the supervisor know the team member's job, and what they are doing with their time? Often, the vagueness of "wasting time" is used to cover the idea that the employee is not as productive as the supervisor would like. Still, often the supervisor has a limited understanding of the employee's job.
- Threatening language in performance reviews—language in performance reviews, especially in the legal arena, can be threatening even if it is only between the lines. Little good ever comes from these evaluations, except, perhaps, hefty severance packages when the staff member leaves.
- Far too much damage can be done to a reputation in a year. When someone has to wait a year to learn that the work they are doing is considered inferior, or that their work ethics are not a match for the firm, it can be hard to recover from the damage that is already done.
Performance evaluations that work:
Frequent, informal evaluations have the most impact in correcting problems and resolving issues. Informal evaluations make both parties feel less stressed about the review, and that opens doorways to improving performance issues as they arise.
For every performance evaluation, there should be a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), which outlines the steps the staff member can take to improve their overall performance. However, there should also be a coaching plan, or whatever you feel comfortable calling it, which outlines the supervisors' role in coaching, mentoring, and set availability to help resolve the issue. These two-sided evaluations foster a team atmosphere and send a message that both parties have work to do to make the working relationship thrive.
Informal performance reviews should be held monthly, with more formal reviews being held quarterly, or at the very least, twice a year. Ideally, informal reviews should be able to keep everyone on the same page. The formal reviews would only have to cover ongoing problems with the staff member, or solid praise for an overall job well done.
Doing frequent informal reviews should make the task of formal reviews less arduous. After all, any problems should have been dealt with on a timely basis, and the team member has had time to make the specific changes needed. The formal review should be a way to document the progress obtained with the monthly informal reviews formally.
Reviews should work both ways without fear of reprisal
Staff members should be mandated to review their supervisors honestly, with no fear of reprisal. The supervisor may already be subjected to performance reviews by those further up the food chain. To improve their role as a supervior, they still need honest feedback about the job they are doing supervising those who report to them.
As with all other performance reviews, these should be a mix of informal and formal reviews. Direct reports should be able to express freely whether the supervisor is available for mentoring, questions, and the overall leadership capability the supervisor shows. One-way reviews are inherently unfair, but more importantly, they are a missed learning opportunity.
Respect staff members enough to investigate their responses to performance evaluations
Employees are often given the right to protest their formal evaluations and write a response. In most cases, those responses are made part of the employee's record, with no further action. The staff deserves the respect of having their side of the story evaluated for merit.
Realistically, not all people have excellent managerial or teaching skills. Those who lack those skills should not be in the role of supervisor, no matter how qualified they are for the position. Time constraints, especially when supervisors also have other roles to fulfill, often lead to poor leadership.
Supervisors need a specific skill set, not the least of which is the desire to see others do well. A supervisor who builds themselves up by putting others down is not good for the firm, even if they are a genius at the other work they do. Two-way evaluations and thorough reviews of disputes to performance evaluations are the only way a firm can genuinely tell if the supervisors are doing their jobs well.
Keep performance reviews in perspective
For those who are new to the company or new to a specific position, negative evaluations can seem like a permanent black mark that will haunt the rest of their career. That accomplishes little except derailing a desire to do a good job while stifling creativity and their sense of pride in their work.
Each review, formal or informal, should include a minimum of one thing that the team member does well. Strengths should be praised and used in the plan of action to correct performance issues. Harsh performance reviews that are little more than a laundry list of mistakes serve little purpose for the sake of correcting problems.
Few who survive in the business world have thin skins, but that doesn't mean that careless words of criticism don't matter. They are part of the reason that suicide rates, mental health issues, and addiction are becoming more commonplace in the workforce. Use evaluations to build up a team mentality, encourage talents, and to call attention to problems while proposing solutions judicially. Give employees time to grow into their positions without derailing them with undue negativity.
Performance review should shift from formalities that satisfy HR needs to a tool to fostering dialogue that benefits the entire organization. Positive feedback, two-way reviews, and concrete action steps to handle any problems can foster a sense of connection and commitment to the company. Committed attorneys and staff can have a profound impact on the bottom line and on improving job satisfaction for everyone.