Reviews can be hard on worker and boss

Training is key to making job evaluations a positive experience in the workplace


Many managers dread it. And some workers are weary of it.

The culprit? Performance evaluations.

When it comes time for performance reviews, managers and employees dance around an uncomfortable process of trying not to create too many bruised feelings. Some managers see the practice as yet another administrative burden, while many workers walk away feeling like the appraisal was a waste of time, according to workplace and human resources experts.

Adding to the angst is human nature. Few people like to give and receive criticism. And many workers worry about how to respond to negative reviews. Because most reviews are tied to annual raises or bonuses, it's no surprise that evaluations create heightened anxiety among employees, experts say.

"Even the most supportive suggestion, there is an implicit criticism that you didn't do well," said Benjamin Dattner, a management consultant and adjunct professor in the industrial and organizational psychology master's program at New York University. "That could be unpleasant for people to hear, and it could be unpleasant for people to share."

Human resources and management experts say the annual rite should represent a culmination of year-round performance feedback sessions between manager and worker.

Because job descriptions change so frequently these days and employees are expected to adapt quickly, experts say it's especially important for managers and workers to have constant talks about expectations.

When done well, human resources and workplace experts say performance reviews can be a way to encourage development and create more productive employees. A continuing study of company policies and practices by Mercer Human Resource Consulting has found that nearly 96 percent of 478 organizations identified employee development as the purpose of their performance management system.

"Most of the companies who do performance appraisals, their intentions are good," said Michael Warech, a practice leader of organization effectiveness at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a global consulting firm.

"Their hearts are in the right place. If you try to explain the process to the average employee, they get it. They understand what it's supposed to do. The problem is in the execution."

In fact, only 13 percent of supervisors and workers believe their company's performance review is useful, according to a 2005 survey of 48,012 employees, managers and chief executive officers across 126 organizations by People IQ, a performance management firm in Washington.

"Everyone hates it," said Sharon Armstrong, a Washington-based human resources consultant and co-author of Stress-free Performance Appraisals. "There are valid reasons for why that happens. No one is trained in it."

Human resources experts agree that managers don't receive enough training in providing constructive criticism. Some managers also perform formal evaluations just once a year - leaving a gap in developing the skills needed to improve on the practice.

"Training makes people more comfortable," Dattner said. "The organization needs to provide tools or a set of criteria to assess performance."

Equally important is how managers give feedback. Focus on performance outcomes, not personal attributes or characteristics, experts advise.

"My recommendation for managers is to be truthful and clear," said Linda Barkdoll, coordinator of the human resources development graduate program at McDaniel College. "Give concrete examples and give specific suggestions in terms of ways to improve."

At Maryland Public Television, employees are reviewed twice a year with a voluntary option of completing a self-assessment evaluation.

Because each worker is reviewed at different times of the year, managers are not burdened with completing a large stack of paperwork at one time, said Larry Unger, the organization's chief operating officer.

Unger said a formal evaluation system is "essential to every organization."

"It really opens up communication and gives opportunity to talk about the future, how they see the future and how we see the future," said Gladys Kaplan, MPT's managing director of human resources and facilities.

Since the public broadcaster's evaluation system was revamped eight years ago, executives have worked to incorporate the practice in its culture. Continuous training is provided for managers, especially as new supervisors join the ranks. Employees, too, attend sessions on how reviews and salary increases work, Kaplan said.

(Though a state agency, Maryland Public Television has independent authority to set salaries.)

"It's like anything else, after you do it four to five times, it's not as hard," Unger said. "It was completely foreign to our managers and they didn't understand it. I could tell you eight years later, it's second nature now."

Jeff Wachter, a master control broadcast operations supervisor, oversees eight veteran workers. The 20-year MPT employee said he doesn't see his evaluation duty as a burden.

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