Effective employee evaluations create an atmosphere of trust; employees know what expectations the agency has and employers have a forum to ensure those expectations have been communicated. It also helps to protect the employer in the event of the need to discipline or discharge an employee; there’s a documented process where expectations were known and a chance to improve was given.
Attorney Amy Delpo posted on the online law encyclopedia Nolo.com, that “before you can accurately evaluate employee performance, you need to establish a system to measure that performance. For each employee, you need to come up with performance standards and goals.”
Standards and goals are defined by your department’s mission statement and SOGs. Delpo notes, “Once you have defined the standards and goals for each position and worker, write them down and hand them out to your employees. This will let your employees know what you expect and what they will have to achieve during the year to receive a positive evaluation.”
Often, the type of evaluations, the process and their use internally may have to be negotiated with bargaining units.
Delpo’s evaluation tips include:
- Be specific – When you set goals and standards for your workers, spell out exactly what they’ll have to do to achieve them. For example, don't say "work harder" or "improve quality." When you evaluate a worker, give specific examples of what the employee did to achieve—or fall short of—the goal.
- Give deadlines – If you want to see improvement, give the worker a timeline to turn things around. If you expect something to be done by a certain date, say so.
- Be realistic – If you set unrealistic or impossible goals and standards, everyone will be disheartened—and they’ll have little incentive to do their best if they know they’ll still fall short.
- Be honest – If you avoid telling a worker about performance problems, the worker won't know that he or she needs to improve. Be sure to give the bad news, even if it’s uncomfortable.
- Be complete – Write your evaluation so an outsider reading it would be able to understand exactly what happened and why. Remember, that evaluation just might become evidence in a lawsuit.
- Evaluate performance, not personality – Focus on how well (or poorly) the worker does the job—not on the worker's personal characteristics or traits. For instance, don't say the employee is "angry and emotional." Instead, focus on the workplace conduct that is the problem. For example, you can say the employee has “been insubordinate to line managers twice in the past six months. This behavior is unacceptable and must stop."
- Listen to your employees – The evaluation process will seem fairer to your workers if they have an opportunity to express their concerns, too. Ask employees what they enjoy about their jobs and about working at the company. Ask about concerns or problems they may have. You'll gain valuable information, and your employees will feel like real participants in the process.
Obviously, employee evaluations can be difficult, especially for a so-called problem-child employee. It’s further complicated when you’re required to evaluate the men and women you live with.
According to Victor Lipman, a contributor to Forbes/Leadership, three simple questions help ensure effective employee evaluations:
- Are your employees’ objectives clear and measurable? It all starts here, and these of course should be established and agreed to early in the year. If employee objectives are clear and measurable (and, it goes without saying, well known and transparent to the employee), that’s a solid foundation to work from.
- Have your employees’ results been well documented throughout the year? It doesn’t help if employee objectives are clear but little has been documented. Lack of documentation simply invites “he said/she said” types of disagreement between employee and management. Firm documentation takes guesswork and subjectivity out of the process: here are the results; how do they compare to the specific objectives we established?
- Have you provided regular consistent feedback throughout the year? Was the full chain of communication completed? Were the results that were achieved based on the objectives that were set duly communicated back and presumably discussed? The operative phrase here should be “no surprises.” If all these steps are managed well, an annual evaluation should be more of an afterthought than a drama.
Lipman writes, “Unfortunately, all too often managers aren’t doing their jobs properly, and in such instances the formal evaluation just reflects a broader problem.”
The process breaks down if the evaluator isn’t leading by positive example. The evaluation won’t be taken seriously.
Which brings up the question: are we teaching evaluators on how to evaluate? We often see “Congratulations on your promotion; by the way, here are your employee evaluation forms.”
Some forms are so generic they’re useless. Evaluations are also subjective to the evaluator; there will never be 100% consistency. The department must make an effort to ensure evaluators are taught the department goals and expectations of the evaluations.
As an evaluator, do you have the confidence to be evaluated by those under your command as well as above? An anonymous process is included in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program that provides tremendous insight.
Departments need to explore the value of employee evaluations in their agencies. But evaluations are beneficial to both the employer and employee. Legally, it helps to protect the employer and employee. If you don’t have a process in place; why not?
D. Brady Rogers, EFO, CFO, is an adjunct instructor for both the Massachusetts Maritime and National Fire Academies and a member of the IAFC On Scene advisory board. He’s been a member of the IAFC since 2010.