Writing Effective Employee Performance Evaluations

If you’re like most managers, the words "evaluation time" strike a fear within you, equaled only by the sound of an alarm clock ringing at 5 AM on a Monday morning. Who can blame you? The task of summarizing an employee’s performance over a period of a year is so disarming to some managers that many have done away with performance evaluations all together. However, performance evaluations need not be so harrowing.

What’s the point?

The first step is to understand why we have performance evaluations. Knowing why they’re necessary makes them a bit more tolerable. Evaluations contribute to an employee’s morale, comfort-level, and sense of "being needed" or importance within a company. An evaluation helps them to pinpoint their areas of improvement and set attainable goals.

What’s the harm if we don’t do them?

Performance evaluations, or lack of, have a seamier side. They are not required by law, however, if you are ever involved in an employment related lawsuit, employee performance evaluations will likely be among the first items entered into evidence. The absence of performance evaluations may suggest that you made no effort to work with the employee and help him improve his performance. Even worse, the absence of performance evaluations may imply that you accepted the employee’s poor performance and that the termination was actually motivated by something other than performance, perhaps discrimination or retaliation.

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

If you are going to conduct employee performance evaluations, it is important that they are done correctly and throughly. In some cases, the absence of performance evaluations may be better than poorly prepared ones. Most performance evaluations that fail do so because of one or more of five major evaluator errors:

  1. Overly positive evaluations. This error occurs most frequently because some managers can’t bear to give negative criticism. Still others hope that by giving a very positive performance evaluation they will motivate the employee to perform better. Not only is this ineffective, but it sends the wrong message to the employee and does nothing to help the employee meet the desired goal. Furthermore, if the employer decides to terminate the employee because of poor performance, there will not be adequate documentation to support the termination.
  2. Overly critical evaluations. While this error occurs less frequently, some managers use performance evaluations to "squeeze out" an employee. When this occurs, it is usually because performance is not the real reason for the termination. When a performance evaluation is used for this purpose, it may make the employee angry and wondering if there is some hidden, illegal motivation for wanting the employee out.
  3. Uniformly neutral evaluations. There is a tendency among managers to give everyone a neutral performance evaluation. This happens for several reasons: Laziness on the part of the evaluator, lack of documentation of the employee’s performance and therefore lack of substantial information about the employee’s performance or discomfort in delivering "bad news." Uniformly neutral evaluations provide no benefit to either the employee or the employer.
  4. Single event evaluations. Some managers have a tendency to evaluate employees based on a single event that occurred sometime during the review period. This may result in an overly positive evaluation (for an employee who lands a big account but has generally poor conduct on the job), or an overly negative evaluation (for an employee who had a major error but normally performs very well during the year).
  5. Most recent event evaluations. When employees anticipate the annual performance evaluation, performance tends to improve. Managers who do not recognize this and who do not keep good performance documentation throughout the year may be inclined to evaluate the employee’s performance based on this "inflated" recent performance.

Managers should be aware of these common errors and try to avoid them. Anything less than a complete and accurate performance evaluation will not help to improve the employee’s performance and may actually be damaging to the company in the event of an employment related law suit.***

Where to begin...

Following are ten steps to effective performance evaluations.

  1. Communicate the expectations. Keep the employee informed of their performance expectations from day one. Job descriptions, job training and general orientation all help to get the new employee off to a good start. As job responsibilities change and grow, this orientation step may need to be repeated from time to time to make sure the employee knows what is expected.
  2. Observe and document performance all year. Managers must observe and document employee job performance and conduct on a regular and on-going basis. Even seemingly minor offenses should be documented so that they may be referred to in the future if necessary. Because no one manager can remember all of the events that occur with each employee during an entire year, contemporaneous documentation is necessary. When a pattern develops in the documentation, problems may be identified and corrected before they become too big. Furthermore, complete documentation helps the evaluator to recall the events that occurred throughout the year so that the annual evaluation may be based on documented evidence of performance.
  3. Give warnings and counseling when needed. Don’t wait until the annual performance evaluation to tell an employee about a performance problem. That may be too late. When the employee’s documentation shows a pattern of performance or conduct problems, the manager should counsel the employee and explain the need for improvement. Counseling should occur as soon as the problem surfaces. Verbal and written warnings should be used as often as needed to correct performance and should always be documented in the employee’s personnel file.
  4. Review all available documentation. Before the annual performance evaluation, the manager must review all available performance documentation. The more complete the documentation, the more accurate and objective the performance evaluation will be.
  5. Complete the performance evaluation form. The performance evaluation form should be completed about one week before the scheduled performance evaluation meeting. This gives the manager ample time to review all of the documentation and complete the evaluation form in a thoughtful manner. A performance evaluation form completed in haste is likely to be inaccurate or incomplete. The employee should also complete a self evaluation prior to coming to the evaluation meeting.
  6. Get a second opinion. After completing the performance evaluation form, discuss your evaluation with another manager. The purpose of this step is to reduce subjectivity in assessing performance and to check for evaluator error in the evaluation process. Where two or more managers supervise an employee, a consolidated performance evaluation may be beneficial.
  7. Be specific. During the evaluation, discuss specific performance problems including dates, times, names and specific examples of performance and conduct. State specifically what the employee needs to do to improve and give the employee suggestions as to how he or she may go about improving. Set a time frame for achieving goals as well as follow up meeting dates if necessary.
  8. Stress the need to improve. Areas for improvement generally fall into one of three categories: 1) a need for immediate improvement to salvage the job, 2) a need for improvement to help the employee perform at a better level, or 3) suggestions to help the employee perform even better so that he or she may move upward and assume more responsibility. High priority items should be given a specific time frame for improvement with plans to review the performance at some time in the near future.
  9. Give the employee his or her turn. During the evaluation, ask the employee to discuss his or her own self-evaluation and to respond to the manager’s evaluation. Allow the employee to explain any discrepancies in the evaluation. Be sure to document all employee comments in the personnel file.
  10. Summarize the evaluation. Make sure that the employee fully understands what was discussed in the evaluation, what is expected and consequences for not meeting the goals. An employee should never leave an evaluation with a feeling of uncertainty.
Based on an article by:

Van A. Thaxton, MS, is a human resources consultant in San Diego. She has over 16 years experience as a human resources consultant, helping clients prepare employee handbooks, performance appraisal programs, affirmative action plans, salary surveys, and independent contractor agreements. Ms. Thaxton is cofounder of the Associated General Contractors (AGC) Emerging Business Task Force. She is a co-author of Practitioners Publishing Company’s Guide to Personnel Management and has conducted numerous seminars and published many articles regarding successful employment practices.


CFS is not rendering legal advice. If you have questions of a legal nature, you should consult with a lawyer.