It's an all-too-common scene in Employee Relations departments:
Manager: "You have to help me fire this employee. She's constantly causing problems on the team, and her work output is terrible."
Employee Relations: "Okay. Let's see what's already been documented." [pause] "You gave this employee a 5 [the top rating, supposedly reserved for superstar employees] just three months ago! How can it be that her performance has gone downhill so quickly?"
Manager: "Oh, it hasn't. She's been a problem for a while. I just knew that if I gave her less than a 5 she'd make an issue of it and I'm just so tired of arguing with her that I didn't want the hassle. So, how soon can we fire her?"
Employee Relations: "Well, given that we're starting from scratch and have to follow our process extra carefully because you have this official document saying her performance is exceptional, I would say three months at a minimum, more likely six."
Manager: "What?! I want to fire her today!"
I've encountered multiple managers who were truly bewildered that the completely false performance review could make it difficult to fire an employee. They often think that because the company is in an "at-will" state, employees can be fired at any time.
However, there is a difference between what the law allows and what best practices dictate. Many organizations, regardless of the at-will regulations of their state, have formal disciplinary processes to ensure that there will not be grounds for potential lawsuits for wrongful termination. This usually means documenting the performance thoroughly and giving the employee an opportunity to improve, unless the conduct is egregious.
Hopefully you won't have an employee whose performance (and attitude) are so bad as the managers in these situations, but it's still important to be as accurate as possible in writing your employees' performance appraisals:
- Employees deserve to know how they are doing and what they can do to be more successful.
- The organization needs to have an accurate assessment of the employee's performance. In addition to the termination scenario already mentioned, an employee might be considered for promotion or re-hire by people who have had no direct exposure to the employee previously. The appraisal can help them make an informed decision.
- If you move on to another position, your successor needs to have accurate information about their new direct reports so that they can manage them more effectively.
One of the common reasons managers give for writing inaccurate performance reviews is that doing so is the only way to ensure their employees get a reasonable salary increase. This has become even more of an issue in the past few years when organizations are allocating such small pools for merit increases. It's risky to give someone a higher rating than he or she deserves, especially if there truly are performance issues.
The best approach is to be accurate in both the rating and the supporting text you write. The second-best approach is to give the rating you feel you need to give, but then try to include in the supporting text any areas that you are "watching" or plan to discuss with the employee. That way, if you need to put the employee on a performance improvement plan further down the road, the topic has at least been introduced officially in writing.
Tips for making performance appraisals easier to write
Provide feedback regularly.
Performance reviews are much easier to write if you have been making notes as you go along and sharing your feedback with the employee. The reason managers tend to hate writing them is that they have to start from scratch, and they (rightfully) feel guilty about documenting things the employee has no idea are wrong.
Set aside time to write your performance appraisals.
If your organization's cycle is such that you won't be doing reviews for a while, go ahead and block out time on your calendar for writing the evaluations and for holding the meetings. If you wait until annual review time, you're less likely to have big blocks of time available, and this is an important part of your job. It shouldn't be done squeezed in between other things.
Consider going off-site (or at least away from your physical office, to a conference room or other office) when it's time to write your reviews.
You need to be uninterrupted, and it's awkward to be writing confidential things when employees are popping in and out of your office.
Use templates and resources to help you with the language if you're struggling with how to write a review.
There are books and online resources, and your HR department may also have training or job aids you can reference.