When an Eval is Evil

Giving your employees a timely, accurate evaluation is an important part of being a manager. Granted, with most managers, myself included, doing evals isn’t one their most favorite things to do. Still, they are a necessary evil. It is a necessity in order to tell your employees “where they stand” and how they can improve.

It seems that at most places I have worked, management usually gives this task a low priority, and it tends to be put off until the very last possible moment. This makes the entire process somewhat ineffective because, “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.” Simply, you are already effectively out of time to get it done, so the task is forced to fit into the time available to accomplish it. The quality and value of the evaluation are both diminished.

The quality of the evaluation is important because employees need to know the areas where they excel and where they fall short of expectations. If they don’t know what is broken, they won’t know how to fix it. It is hard to live up to expectations that you don’t know about.

The “standard”

The thing is, though, that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. One airline I worked for had a standard employee evaluation form that was used to evaluate, well, everyone. The same standard format was used for flight attendants and payroll clerks, janitors and bag handlers. Basically, one size fits all. The problem with one size fits all is that it fits no one very well.

To complicate matters even more, there was a standard for the standard. I actually spent a lot of time writing out the evaluations for my employees. I followed the complicated scoring system that the airline designed and gave each of my employees the exact numerical score that I honestly believed they deserved. I filled out all the supporting information that the forms required to back up the reasoning for the scores. I checked and double checked all the numbers, and had what I believed to be an honest and accurate evaluation for each of my employees.

I was allowed a scale of one through 10 to rate my employees. The evaluations for my employees ranged from a four for one employee (who, in reality, probably only deserved a three or three and a half) to a couple of employees who scored and deserved a solid nine. Overall, I had a nice bell curve, and I believed that all of my employees had been rated fairly and accurately. The airline policy was that the evaluations had to be reviewed by the director of the department before I could sit down with my employees and give them their individual evaluations.

The Director agreed with my evaluations. However, he told me that I couldn’t use the ratings I had given my employees, and that I had to redo the evaluations to meet “the standard.” I was told that according to the standard, no employee could score less than a five or more than an eight. So, being the curious type, I asked for the reasoning behind this. I was told that “no one is that bad or that good.”

I felt the need to stand up for my employees and pursue this a bit further. After all, there was up to a whopping two percent raise at stake for them. So, I asked the next, seemingly logical, question that came ot my mind. “If I can’t use any numbers other than five, six, seven and eight, why do you even have the other numbers on the form?”  The Director resorted to the standard “because that’s what HR says” response, meaning that he had no clue about how to respond to my question.

Human resources perspective

Being fairly new to the world of aviation management at the time, and not yet having learned the folly of tilting at windmills, I pursued this a bit further. I went to HR and asked my questions there. I left even more confused than I was when I went there, but at least I had answers.

An HR professional told me that giving evaluation scores of nine or 10 “sent the wrong message to the employee.” It seems that, according to HR, any employee who received a nine or a 10 on their evaulation would believe there was no further room for improvement in their performance, and they would lose the incentive to keep trying to improve. Giving an employee a nine or 10 was “just bad.” OK, I guess there is some sort of logic there — warped logic, perhaps, but logic nonetheless.

According to HR, an evaluation score of five was “acceptable” and indicated that the employee was performing “satisfactorily, but not exceptionally.” The HR professional went on to say that giving an employee an evaluation score of less than five meant that the manager was ineffective, not the employee. The reasoning was that a manager should never have to write an evaluation of less than five “if they are a good manager” and had “kept the employee apprised and had counseled them on a regular basis about what behavior changes needed to be made in order to improve.” According to the standard, managers who scored any of their employee less than a five would have their own evaluation score lowered due to “insufficient employee interaction.”

Challenging the standard

I know that not all employee evaluation programs are implemented the way the one at this particular airline was. However, the point here is that evaluations are a tool, and they can be a very good tool when used properly. They need to be accurate and timely, and they need to be all encompassing. They need to point out the good and the bad, hopefully in equal amounts.

Even the employee that I believed deserved a four on their evaluation had a few good traits, although it was a stretch to work them in. This particular employee was as reliable and consistent as the sunrise. Never late. Never missed a day. These are some really great traits in any employee — well, almost any employee. Consistency and reliability are good traits, unless you are consistently and reliably bad. Still, to be honest, I had to give points for consistency and reliability. On the other hand, it was those positive points that brought the evaluation score up to a four.

Most companies have an employee evaluation program of some sort. Some are formal, some are informal — and a good portion of them are worthless window dressing. Most (but certainly not all) employees want to know how they are doing and what they can do to improve. Managers need to take the time to give feedback that has value. A manager should never give a bad without also giving a good. There is some good in every employee, although sometimes you have to be a bit creative to find it. Likewise, there is always some bad in the best employee you have. You have to find that as well.

You should also carefully consider what it is that you are evaluating. Are you evaluating the employee’s actual performance in their job? Are you evaluating their daily interaction with you, the manager? Are you evaluating the employees ability/capability/willingness to play corporate politics?

Use value over evil

An eval becomes evil when it is merely an exercise in putting a checkmark in a box in accordance with some mythical, mystical standard that no one can define. An eval becomes evil when the scores are predefined by people from above who have never even met the employees being evaluated and whose only interest is in forcing the evaluation scores to fit into some statistical model.

If your company-standard evaluation forms will allow it, be honest with your employees. Give them a score that actually reflects their performance. Give them some things to improve upon, but don’t neglect to point out where they are excelling. That one or two percent raise may not mean much right now, but if they keep their performance consistent, it turns into some real money after 10 or 15 years. It is the manager’s duty to help them get there.

Bill Brinkley holds an FAA Airframe and Powerplant certifications as well as an Inspection Authorization and FCC ratings. He is among the first in the nation to receive the PAMA/SAE Aviation Maintenance Engineer rating.Brinkley has an extensive background in both fixed-wing and rotor maintenance and processes, including the areas of reliability, quality, configuration management, human factors and maintenance planning. He is a columnist for three nationally-published maintenance magazines, and has been a featured speaker at numerous maintenance and reliability seminars.

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