The Debate Over Performance Evaluations

Kathy Fortin

March 25, 2019

The Debate Over Performance Evaluations

 Some large companies are debating the need for employee performance evaluations. Articles in Forbes and Harvard Business Review report that formal evaluations might be unnecessary, if companies, instead, promote continuous, constructive feedback between employer and employees. Some companies (in favor of eliminating the annual reviews) maintain that open, ongoing communication is more desirable than the once a year, formal, sit-downs. A primary reasons is that some feel the annual review is not a productive process and also that some employees find it unsatisfactory. If not implemented and handled effectively, that could be true.

While regular feedback is always necessary, I still favor a formal review process and recommend combining the two. What could be better, for both employer and employee, than to have: (i) a constant flow of communication, and (ii) a structure that ensures a formal opportunity, either semi-annually or annually, to discuss issues in greater depth and to carve out and set goals for the short and long-term future?

Often I encounter small and mid-sized law firms where their performance evaluation process needs attention. Here are two of the most frequent problems:

  1. The Employee Manual, or past unwritten practice, requires annual performance reviews, but they are conducted ad hoc, and only when an employee asks for one.
  2. There is no history or policy of performance reviews and they are rarely conducted, until a problem arises. Then, the lack of reviews and feedback makes termination difficult.

These scenarios more often than not become major issues that affect productivity and morale in the firm. A concern is the employee’s loss of respect for the employer and the employer’s loss of credibility, by not keeping his/her word and doing what has been expected. Dissatisfaction is difficult to reverse. The effect of poor morale is disastrous. Hiring is a costly, time-consuming venture. When I see a firm that has a written policy and routinely conducts evaluations, there are fewer problems.

Why do employee evaluations matter? I believe that employees deserve to know what is expected of them and to hear how they are doing. Having a clear policy and a process in place conveys to the employees that their employer has taken the time and cares enough to have a mutual exchange of thoughts about each individual’s role and performance. My idea of a review session is not a one-sided report by the employer, but a two-way conversation. When I used to receive performance evaluations, I was eager to learn about the company’s goals, the global picture, and how I fit in it. I found the discussions revealed information I might not have learned otherwise. I always valued the feedback and the ideas I shared were also valued. The important point is that there is a lot to be gained through a meaningful process and a lot to be lost without one, if done well.

The annual review session will flow more smoothly if a natural process of communication has been established. Do you and your employee meet regularly? Is it your practice to meet one-on-one with the paralegal, for example, to coordinate client work, review schedules and pending deadlines, and monitor the progress on major projects? Meetings like this are vital to managing the work. They are also opportunities to establish communication surrounding performance. For example, did you experience difficulties in meeting deadlines or were the deadlines met without any problems? Were there issues with the quality of work produced or was the work of high quality? The results will be self-evident. You can see how meetings provide for ongoing communication. There will be no surprises when the formal review comes around.

If your law firm is weak in either areas of communication on a regular basis or a formal review process, look at ways to improve both, to be fair to your staff, and to you.

What a review policy entails and how it is implemented is up to you. It can consist of a detailed form with ratings in key areas, a self-assessment form, a combination of the two, or a narrative report. You can review the results while meeting in a conference room or during a chat over coffee, face-to-face. In my next Blog Post I will offer more information about what to consider.