Root Canal or Conduct a Performance Evaluation?

by Dr. Victoria McGrath & Dr. Tim McGrath

Does your employee performance evaluation look something like this?

Check the appropriate box:
[_] Able to walk across the ocean
[_] Able to walk across inland lakes
[_] Able to walk across ponds
[_] Able to walk across puddles
[_] At risk of drowning

It is amazing how the performance evaluation has developed into the necessary evil - like the dreaded day you receive word you need a root canal. When, if done simply, and often - like taking care of your teeth - it can become a routine maintenance experience that benefits both the organization and the employee.

Performance appraisals are among the most valuable and important tools available to a supervisor. Evaluations, or performance appraisals, are essential to improving employee performance and the organization. When handled effectively, these reviews can help close the gap between what employees do and what administration needs them to do.

Many feel that performance evaluations cannot be given to union employees since there is not a direct correlation between performance and compensation. Others feel that performance evaluations cannot be given in POC and volunteer departments, because if you tell a volunteer he or she needs improvement they will leave the department. Yet, when performance evaluations are given to any type of employee, and it is given in a simple format with both constructive criticism and deserved praise, organizations have a tendency to develop a healthy, respectful culture.

Why do Performance Appraisals?
Performance appraisals started as a way to justify personnel actions - promotions to terminations. Throughout the years they have morphed into the organizations method to provide on-going documentation of an employee to limit potential litigation. Thus, many evaluation instruments consist of multiple pages and categories that probe into all aspects of an employee's life in the organization - from work knowledge to how they dress. However, one needs to take a step back and determine - for YOUR organization - why do performance appraisals? Is it to document employee's performance?; coach and plan for professional development?; measure one's ability to perform operational tasks? Or all/or part of the above.

Too often evaluation forms are developed by human resource professionals to be used for all positions within the organization, or a reprint from another organization where the Chief did nothing more than change the department's name. In either case, the form is not developed around the organizations or departments purpose for conducting an evaluation.

Step 1: Define Why Your Department Wants to Conduct a Performance Appraisal
Step one should be to define - why does this department want to conduct a performance appraisal? A helpful way to accomplish this task is to ask the membership? Put a team together of firefighters (of all ranks) together with supervisors and develop the reason why should we conduct performance appraisals.

Throughout the article we will continue to come back to this fundamental point - why are you conducting a performance appraisal. Once defined, it will drive how you communicate your expectations to employees; how the form is designed; how it is delivered; and ultimately the 'success' of the program.

Step 2: Set the Expectations of the Department?
One could almost inverse step 1 and 2 - kind of asking which comes first, the chicken or the egg - nonetheless, one must have a clear strategic plan or vision of the fire department. Employees can't be expected to perform when they do not understand the vision and mission of the department.

I know, many of you are saying - what do you mean? Our job is to save lives and fight fires - what more does one have to understand? Let's think about that statement - do you actually perform the same functions that you did ten years ago? Actually looking back ten years one discovers there are a host of operations and programs that fire departments did not do before - fire prevention (other than the one week a year), community education, special teams (dive, confined space, hazmat, etc.), EMS, MABAS, NIMS, etc., etc. The fire service is continually asked to take on new tasks, thus necessitating asking your members to continually seek more training, become knowledgeable in different operational techniques, and continue to perform all of the daily functions of a fire department. Thus, what performance expectations do you have regarding your employees? If you can't paint that picture - then don't expect your employee's to understand it and do it.

In essence if you do not set the expectations of the organization, then the culture of the organization will define it for you. This often leads to an organization that becomes difficult to change; remains stagnate, and in some situations create a very dysfunctional department.

Step 3: Design the Form
Believe me, there is no such thing as a perfect performance evaluation form. The best form is one that is designed by the organization to fit the reason behind doing evaluations in the first place.

Problems with forms:

  • Too Long: Without a clear purpose, evaluation forms tend to include everything. As they continue to include more and more performance categories, they become less effective and supervisors dread to take the time to complete them.

  • Rating Categories: Unless there is a direct tie to the score and the compensation, many forms have way too many rating categories:

    • 1 (unsatisfactory) to 10 (Walks on water)
    • Excellent, Satisfactory, Good, Poor, Needs Improvement
    • Does the job, Doesn't do the job

    Whatever the rating methodology - does it make sense? I've seen forms where the rating scale is 1-10, but no one is allowed to be a 10! Then why have it as a category? Others where the minute difference in adjectives can give a person a 4 versus a 5 - can you clearly articulate the difference? Few employees see themselves as average and if rated as such would (perhaps quietly) resent - not learn, grow, or improve from the evaluation experience.

    Finally, as the rating scale becomes more clouded, so does the emphasis of the evaluation - we become too concentrated on the score, rather than the conversation regarding the performance of the individual.

  • Rating Creep: Some evaluators believe that since you evaluated a person as "average" or "good" last year, you need to give them a higher score this year. This often results in rating creep - and soon, all employees are excellent. Excellent that is, until you try to terminate that employee. When designing rating categories, you should not only be conscious of the 'meaning of the term' but what expectations you communicate about those ratings. If one expects to get an 'Average' this year, but improvement means that I go to "Above Average" next year, have you clearly delineated not only the definitions of the ratings, but the corresponding performance expectations that will award the employee in the next rating category? Too often, with undefined rating categories, and poorly defined performance expectations - the tie between the performance and the rating becomes lost, and therefore meaningless to the employee. When conducting audits in fire departments it is not uncommon to hear employees say that they received the 'same' evaluation as last year - except for a few word changes. (Don't laugh; in an audit of five years of evaluations in one department, it was the same evaluation with date and a few word changes by the same supervisor for every employee on the shift.)

  • Lack of Creativity: Performance evaluation instruments usually do not vary much from organization to organization. They continue to have the same performance categories but with slightly different words attached to them: job knowledge, customer service, initiative, safety, etc. etc. If these are the core values of your organization, and your purpose is to evaluate on basic department operations, then these are completely satisfactory. Just be careful to eliminate redundancy and minimize the number of categories to those that are truly fundamental performance expectations.

    Why not consider alternative formats? Recently designed an evaluation instrument where the administration boiled down the purpose of the evaluation to four very basic questions that employee's needed to respond to. In other words, this group determined what did the supervisors really want to discuss with an employee and focused the evaluation form around those. All the other items (performance categories) should be taken care of on a daily basis, so why then use this time to discuss the obvious.

    Again, there is no perfect format, but try not to continually reinvent the same format, 'just because it has always been done that way in the past'.

  • Forms Never Changes: This is the same form the department has been using for the last 20 years! Just like fashion and fads, performance evaluations need to be updated to reflect the times. It gets boring and monotonous to do the same form over and over again. Supervisors begin to lose their creativity in writing the form, and employees get tired of hearing the same thing. Every few years, look at the form and see what needs to be updated, added, deleted, or changed. Maybe that requires the form to be tweaked or maybe this is the year it gets blown up and re-invented. Keep it fresh so that it is more interesting - rather than 'the same old thing'.

Therefore - tie the rating scale - again, to the reason for the evaluation. Next, focus on the conversation regarding performance, rather than the number or the word. Third, be creative in your forms - do they have to be categories with check boxes - can they be an essay, a couple of fundamental questions or important categories? Develop the form to develop an understanding of how the employee understands his or her role within the organization. Finally, put the forms and process on a schedule of re-evaluation. You don't necessarily have to reflect the new fads, but does it continue to represent the goals and objectives of the organization?

Step 4: Communicate, Communicate and when finished Communicate more!
Consider the performance appraisal process in the terms of performance management. This has an entirely different meaning than the once a year formal evaluation process. Performance management is a process where the organization, i.e., supervisor, communicates the performance expectations upon hire, daily through communications regarding everyday performance, formally through written commendations, discipline, and evaluations, as well as ensuring employees understand the mission and goals of the organization, department and shift. The department needs to evaluate the human resource systems to ensure constant communication with its employees.

Recently we heard a Fire Chief - in a troubled organization - pound his fist on the table and tell us 'The problem here is with communications - and we are NOT going to talk about it". Guess it didn't take too long to figure out the problem in this organization. But successful organizations - career and volunteer - continually talk to and involve members in decisions relating to the operations of the department (outside the chain of command in emergency situations) as well as to their own professional development.

First - do you have job descriptions and are they up-to-date. Use these at the time of employment to not only communicate the responsibilities of the position, but annually as a way to communicate performance expectations.

Second - As a supervisor, do you have 'regularly' scheduled informal conversations with your employees to recognize good performance and correct behaviors? Unless your employees are excellent mind readers how do they know if they are or are not doing what you expect. Many times shift officers tend to 'protect' other members of the shift rather than confront poor performance when it happens.

Third - Involve employees in the performance evaluation process. This could include either a self-evaluation component; a joint evaluation process; or making sure employees are engaged in the evaluation discussion. Rather than put all the work on the evaluating supervisor, allow the employee input into the process. Who should know better of the performance and accomplishments than the employee?

Finally - if you truly incorporate a constructive evaluation process within the organization and it is not deemed as a punitive process - consider adding an evaluation process where employees are able to provide comments on their particular shift supervisor. There are a number of precautions that need to be put in place, but if the culture of the organization values feedback; this can be a critical component to a supervisor's professional growth.

Step 5: Documentation and Training
Anyone who has attended a seminar on performance evaluations, or discipline, understands the importance of documentation; yet, many supervisors do not do it. Rather the evaluation is constructed based upon recent memory, not a record of the past. With the advent of technology, it is so much easier to jot a few notes regarding an employee on a regular basis, that there should be no excuses. In one department, we developed a documentation process that allowed the employees under the shift commander to see what the supervisor had written about them - talk about a non-threatening, transparent culture!

When all is said and done - training on the evaluation process for supervisors is essential. Not just when the new form and process are implemented, but periodically to continually refresh supervisors on the necessity and reason for performance evaluations. As well as cultivate a culture of performance management.

Don't forget to train employees! Training on the performance expectations, evaluation process, employee expectations in the evaluation process, and the reason for evaluations is not a secret kept only in the supervisory ranks. Employees should also be trained in how to document their own performance. Especially if the process includes a self-evaluation component, or the focus of the evaluation is on the conversation of performance. Periodic training on performance management should be an integral part of the department's training program.

Daily routine communication regarding expectations and how the employee is performing in regards to those expectations; a well-designed integrated performance appraisal form and process; and periodic training will assist administration in preventive measures and hopefully ward off or allow ample time to avoid the major personnel issues. When performance evaluations are designed and conducted properly it is more like daily routine maintenance verses a root canal.

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