The University Record, October 11, 1999

Performance evaluations not a one-a-year thing, speakers say

By Mary Jo Frank
Office of Communications

In more and more University offices, the old style, once-a-year performance evaluation has become as rare as rotary dial telephones, Wang word processors and ash trays. By the middle of the next millennium, we may not even have performance evaluations in the sense we understand them today, Deborah Nystrom, staff development associate in Human Resource Development, told those attending a Commission for Women program titled “Enter the Millennium Prepared for Your Next Performance Evaluation.”

Already, Nystrom said, some University units are following the lead of successful businesses, embracing a “whole-systems view of performance management” that includes setting goals, coaching and giving feedback to employees throughout the year, and measuring success.

Speakers Juliana Brown and Mary Ann Bryant, who work in units that have revamped their performance evaluation process or are working on ways to provide more effective appraisals and feedback, said top-down support is critical to making changes.

Bryant, departmental administrator of the Department of Psychology and chair of LS&A’s Work Planning, Feedback and Appraisal Committee, said LS&A Dean Shirley Neuman is committed to a systems approach to performance management. The group has been working for 18 months and is presenting recommendations to the dean this fall.

Brown, the Office of Development’s executive director of advancement services and annual giving, explained that Development has been working on its performance planning, coaching and appraisal process for several years, encouraged and supported by Vice President for Development Susan Feagin and her predecessor, Thomas Kinnear.

In Development, performance management is based on the unit’s fiscal year goals and begins with the employee and supervisor planning together during the summer. Throughout the academic year, employees receive coaching, feedback and recognition for their accomplishments, Brown explained. The cycle begins again with a formal performance appraisal in May or June, which includes creating an action plan for the next fiscal year.

Performance planning documents are tools, Brown said, to help individuals plan their work as members of assigned teams and measure their performance against an agreed upon plan, to encourage communication within and among all teams, to ensure everyone’s participation in the process of setting goals and measuring success, and to identify opportunities for improvement.

“One of the biggest problems occurs when supervisors and employees don’t see outcomes the same way,” Brown said. Both need to agree on the job’s key responsibilities, establish expected outcomes and engage in an ongoing communication process. The supervisor, Brown said, needs to initiate the planning process; articulate goals and objectives; help the employee develop job skills and improve performance; and provide continuous, constructive and supportive feedback.

In Development, employees also have to do more than sit back and listen to a supervisor’s praise or criticism. Employees must actively participate in the work planning process. This includes relating individual work plans and performance objectives to the objectives of the work group or unit, communicating ideas and concerns, and suggesting ways to improve job skills and improve performance, whether it be taking classes or attending meetings so everyone is in the information loop.

“If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification. Keep asking questions until you do understand,” Bryant advised.

“Employees should feel challenged, motivated and supported when they leave a formal appraisal meeting,” she added. To ensure there are no surprises at formal annual performance appraisals, supervisors should provide feedback and coaching throughout the year.

“You’ve got to be honest. Sugar-coating concerns leads to conflict, stress, and disciplinary and performance problems. “Feedback must be a two-way process,” she said. “It is not easy to give or receive feedback. People frequently need training. Feedback must not be personally based. It should be based on goals.”

Bryant likes to encourage employees to seek challenges and to be proud of their work. Employees who aren’t receiving feedback from supervisors should request a meeting and ask what they should be focusing on to further the unit’s goals, Bryant said.

At a time when we all have too much to do, performance management helps employees focus their energy, said Nystrom, who shared Henry David Thoreau’s comment: “It is not enough to be busy . . . The question is: What are we busy about?”

To improve performance management within individual units, Nystrom suggested using a team approach to redesign current practices, consulting books and journals for benchmarking standards, and consider the newest and best practices to create a system that fits the unit’s culture and supports its goals and mission.

During the question-answer session, one audience member asked about appraisal systems based on a bell curve, in which a few employees receive poor or outstanding evaluations and the majority of employees fall in a large “mediocre category.”

Bryant and Brown said they would not use a bell curve system. “You need to understand differences in people and work with individuals and their goals,” Bryant said.