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Columnist: H. James Harrington

Photo: Scott Paton, publisher


In Praise of Performance Appraisals
The annual ordeal can be a mentoring opportunity.

H. James Harrington


Executives and business gurus continue to debate the merits of performance appraisals within organizations. Point 12 of W. Edwards Deming's 14 points even suggests they're harmful: "Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship, and eliminate the annual rating or merit system."

I don't believe Deming really meant that providing feedback to employees was wrong; rather, he simply hadn't observed a well-running process.

Certainly, providing feedback to employees is one of the mentoring responsibilities of every manager.

I've also heard Deming state that poor performance isn't the employee's fault but the system's. Again, this statement could be considered both true and false. The processes of which an employee is part have a major impact upon the individual's performance. On the other hand, when two people work within the same process and one accomplishes a great deal more than the other, something other than the process is likely the root cause of the discrepancy. The difference in their performance could be because of their motivation, education, concentration or way they organize their work.

Given Deming's views, I wonder if his students were simply given "pass" or "fail" grades. I know I'd be reluctant to hire a person if all I could find out about him or her was that he or she graduated from George Washington University with a degree in economics. I look for the valedictorians, not the ones who just squeezed by.

After 40 years as a manager, I've found that people who don't like to be measured are poor performers. The good ones want to be measured, and if their manager doesn't do it, they'll develop a way to measure themselves--which might not be in line with the organization's goals. We've all heard the saying, "What gets measured, gets done." I was once told by an assembly worker, "If it isn't measured, management doesn't care about it."

Performance appraisals aren't merely a good concept; they're a critical element of a manager's mentoring responsibilities. Unfortunately, the manner in which appraisals are conducted often negates any good that's in them. Too often, the yearly performance appraisal is a summary of all the negative things a manager has accumulated in his or her little black book. It's seen as an opportunity to confront an employee with all the bad things he or she did, and which the manager didn't have time to talk about when they occurred. "In this letter you misspelled Mr. Van de Burg's last name." "At the product control meeting on Aug. 5, you presented inaccurate data." "On Jan. 16, you were out all day and didn't call in."

Performance appraisals are supposed to spur improved performance, not humiliate the employee. They're not a total performance appraisal system; they're just the last step in a cycle. The cycle typically begins 12 months before the formal performance appraisal when the employee and manager sit down to prepare a performance plan for the coming year. The employee should always contribute to setting the requirements for his or her job and defining the company's idea of successfully completing it. This is a very important step in the process because it ensures that the employee understands his or her responsibilities. Each task should be defined in terms that are measurable in one or more of the following categories:

Quality of the end result

Cost vs. value of the end result

Adherence to committed schedules

Ask yourself and the employee, "How will we know that this particular objective has been accomplished and how well it was accomplished?" This questioning forces both you and the employee to think in terms of results. Then establish with the employee an understanding of what meets the requirements for the task and what would be needed to exceed requirements.

The performance plan should be customized to the individual and the job. It might simply consist of three columns with the following headings at the top and the rest of the form left blank to be filled in by the employee's manager:

Task name

Task description

Task priority

Typically, the plan's definition of what meets performance requirements focuses on the specific job description as it applies to the specific task the individual is assigned to accomplish. Performance plans should always be written to reflect "meets performance requirements" because that's all the organization can require from an individual. This approach allows the individual and management the opportunity to document tasks that exceed the "meets performance requirements" standard. Once the employee and manager mutually agree upon the performance standard, the mentoring process can begin.

An effective performance evaluation contributes to higher morale, increased profitability and increased job satisfaction. As William J. Weisz, COO of Motorola Inc., has said, "Our experience to date underscores the perception that if we set high expectations and give people the support and opportunity they need, they can achieve."

About the Author

H. James Harrington has more than 45 years of experience as a quality professional and is the author of 20 books. Visit his Web site at www.hjharrington.com. Letters to the editor regarding this column can be sent to letters@qualitydigest.com.