Employee Appraiser helps managers give constructive, accurate job reviews


December 20, 1993|By PETER H. LEWIS

It's a familiar scenario. The manager dreads writing employee performance reviews, and not just because they take up time. Hoping to be thought of as a good person, the manager sidesteps uncomfortable criticism and ends up concocting a bland appraisal that lacks detail, substance or guidance for the employee.

The employee, who recalls that a co-worker got sacked soon after receiving a positive job review, is demoralized despite being praised as a "team player" who "does a nice job."

The annual job appraisal does not have to be such a perfunctory ritual.

Employee Appraiser, a $129 software package for Windows, helps supervisors give constructive and thoughtful feedback to their employees.

Drawing on the experience of management, personnel and legal hTC experts, Employee Appraiser essentially automates the writing of job reviews and makes it more convenient to keep important notes on a given worker's performance. By improving the review process, Employee Appraiser can also reduce the risk of wrongful dismissal and discrimination lawsuits.

Employee Appraiser, developed by the Austin-Hayne Corp. of San Mateo, Calif., is the latest example of expert-system software written to make life easier for business managers.

Unlike word processors, spreadsheets or other software tools that merely store and process data, these expert-system programs apply tested business rules to a particular situation and make recommendations. As a category, they might be called MBA-ware.

Employee Appraiser provides a template for effective performance reviews. But it also indirectly trains the manager to be more observant and articulate in future evaluations.

"The program can increase the analytical power of your thinking," said Richard A. Hagberg, president of Hagberg Associates, a San Mateo, Calif., consulting firm that specializes in helping senior executives develop management skills. "One of the problems with employee appraisals is that not all managers are analytical when it comes to identifying behavior. This is a tool that can fill in the gap."

Employee Appraiser presents the user with a menu of more than a dozen evaluation categories, including communication, dependability, initiative, decision-making, judgment, leadership, planning and productivity. Some categories, such as customer satisfaction, may not be suitable for certain businesses or jobs, so the user can skip them.

Within each category are various performance "factors," again presented in menu form. Under the communication heading, for example, are factors for verbal communication, writing, listening skills, receptivity to feedback and criticism, keeping others informed, ability to focus on the desired results and openness.

Then, under each factor, the manager is presented with a more sophisticated version of the familiar "rate the employee on a scale of 1 to 5" method. Instead of numbers, Employee Appraiser uses examples. For verbal communications, there are six choices, ranging from "presents ideas clearly" to "lacks structure."

The manager picks the phrase that most accurately describes the attribute of the worker, clicks the mouse on it, and Employee Appraiser generates sample text.

In the sample files that come with the program, the hypothetical employee is Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin. If Whitney's boss chooses "is sometimes unclear," the program generates the following text:

"Eli usually presents his ideas clearly and concisely. However, he sometimes uses terminology that is unclear to others. Eli would be more effective in his communications if he used less jargon and fewer technical terms."

By the time the manager explores each of the categories, the program has generated a solid, detailed report. The manager can then use the program's text editor or another word processing program to modify the report and add comments and details.

George Roukas, director of systems for a large financial services company based in New York City -- he spoke on condition his employer not be identified -- said he has used the program for about a month.

"Constructing the review is simple and automated, and the results are consistent, specific and complete," Roukas said. "Usually when I do a review for someone, it comes out 200 or 300 words. The ones I do now go on for three or four full pages."

One reason his computer-assisted reviews are more complete, Roukas said, is that Employee Appraiser includes a manager's notebook for logging events throughout the year. Episodes that might otherwise be forgotten are stored in the program.

"Most large companies have an appraisal form that includes boxes for different dimensions of behavior," Roukas said. "You look at that dimension and try to remember things the employee did. But because it's limited to things you can remember, the employee only gets rated on things that occurred recently. As a result, ratings are inconsistent and usually very sketchy."

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