The Relationship Between Performance and Evaluation

It seems that there should be a clear and definable relationship between performance and evaluation. You should be able to measure, precisely and objectively, whether the employee does the right things in the right ways. The problem is, performance is not precise and objective. Human interactions are subjective; they involve factors of judgment and perception that exceed the capability of precise, objective measures.

Say, for example, that an employee's job is to make six widgets in an hour. Counting to six is easy enough, but there's more to measuring performance than counting. It's also necessary to determine if the widgets are made correctly. Is there a standard of deviation that's acceptable? If so, is it a precise measurement (each widget can be no more than 0.0032 of an inch larger or smaller than the template) or is it a judgment (each widget feels smooth to the touch)? Must the employee complete one widget every ten minutes, or is it okay for the employee to make all six in the last fifteen minutes of each hour? Can the employee make twelve widgets in one hour, then none in the next hour?

Now suppose it's another employee's job to sell six widgets an hour. Is the standard simply sales, or does it factor in returns? What if there are problems with the phone lines, or the employee calls forty prospective customers but can't convince any of them to actually buy a widget? These are variables beyond the employee's control, yet they directly affect the employee's ability to perform.

Performance evaluation structures range from the nearly nonexistent — a few comments scribbled on the back of a telephone message note — to the compulsive — the minutiae of a job's tasks itemized and delineated on multiple-page documents. Some take their forms because they must (such as reviews mandated by government or licensing entities), and others because managers and employees alike inherently dislike evaluating performance.

In reality, objectivity is difficult. It would be so much easier for everyone if it were possible to devise a universal set of standards. But it's not, and that's a good thing. Many jobs require variability and flexibility. People are different in their needs as well. If there's one lesson you should know by this time in your life, it's that “one size fits all” really doesn't fit anyone.

Company Size Matters

On one end of the continuum are small or family-owned companies that might never formally evaluate anyone's performance. When there are just a few employees, it's pretty obvious when someone's not pulling a full load. There's no place to hide, no way to blend anonymously into a department or work group. Each individual has unique and important responsibilities; failing to meet them puts the company at grave (and usually imminent) risk. People who work in such settings tend to have strong motivations for being there and equally strong commitments to the company and its success. Many of them are likely to be family members. Performance evaluation might mean a pat on the back for an extraordinary success or a dressing down for screwing up — if either extreme ever arises in an environment where one is the expectation and the other could mean the company's demise.

Large corporations reside at the other end of the continuum. New employees typically receive a written manual that defines the company's expectations on everything from job tasks and responsibilities to shift hours and break periods. The performance evaluation structure is often rigid, commonly a numeric scale of some sort. However, within this apparently confining structure there is room for wide variation in performance. An employee can function at a substandard or mediocre level for a defined period of time without direct consequence to the company.

Most companies are somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. As small companies grow, they often add bits and pieces of formality to address specific needs that arise — to deal with the first new employee who doesn't work out, or determine how and when to give someone a raise. Despite the need for their existence, performance evaluations can be a major annoyance for managers and employees alike. Even when there are stringent guidelines, not all employees and circumstances fit within them. And when there are minimal or no guidelines, it's difficult to say to an employee, “Your performance needs improvement.”

Performance and Pay

Many performance evaluation systems tie an employee's evaluation to his or her salary. Get a good evaluation, get a raise. Get an average or a poor evaluation, and the money stays the same. This establishes incentives (or disincentives) for managers to slant evaluations to meet needs other than performance issues. A manager might give a mediocre employee a betterthan-deserved evaluation because the employee needs the raise — often with the hope that the employee will know this and be motivated to do better as a show of gratitude. Such motivation is likely to be short-lived, if it surfaces at all.

Union contracts often define performance standards, measures, and evaluation procedures. In most situations, you cannot change any of these (and often other) elements of the job without a written amendment to the contract. Whether the employee wants or agrees to the change is irrelevant; actions that violate contracts can have serious and far-reaching consequences.

An employee whose performance is substandard might not know this and believe the inflated evaluation to be accurate. Since the evaluation is the perception of performance that becomes part of the employee's records, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to go back later to coach the employee about performance that really hasn't changed. Conversely, a manager facing a tight budget might decide that no one will receive higher than an average performance evaluation to avoid having to give raises that could push the budget to the brink of layoffs. While the manager might believe this action is justified because it will save everybody's jobs, employees are likely to feel cheated — they've been giving their best, yet the company views their performance as not good enough.

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