Performance Evaluations

Writing performance evaluations can be a daunting task. Monica Maxwell, SPHR, walks you through the basics of preparing an annual review and why they are so important.

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Performance evaluations are easily one of the most dreaded practices of management, probably right after terminations and discussions about body odor. They are so dreaded, in fact, that I get emails at least weekly titled “Get Rid of Performance Reviews for Good!” which have the same general look of the ads on the internet that say “Earn $5,000 a Week Working Part-time from Home!” Both are possible, but are, in most cases, highly unrealistic. You can do away with performance evaluations, but just like that part-time internet job, the rewards won’t come without some hard work. If you regularly (i.e. quarterly, monthly, etc) have performance discussions with your employees that you consistently document, the need for whatever form you fill out would be moot. Yes – I see the dilemma with this statement too. First, you are essentially doing a formal evaluation, just more often and second, if you had time to do that, the annual performance evaluations would be a breeze with all of the documentation you would have collected throughout the year.

The first and most important fact to remember about performance reviews is that they were created (probably by a lawyer somewhere) as a structured system to ensure that employees receive regular, documented feedback. If done correctly, this type of documentation can help you defend yourself from allegations of wrong termination, discrimination, the list goes on. Performance evaluations can also help you grow your employees’ development areas and motivate them to achieve goals that are in line with the overall goals for your clinic. More often than not, however, managers struggle with either being overly positive or overly negative. Both can hurt you. An employee who is struggling, but received a sugar coated evaluation to avoid hurt feelings may be shocked later when you write them up, or worse, terminate them for finally pushing you over the edge with that scheduling mistake or client communication problem. Reviews that are overly harsh and negative end up being anything but constructive and are often either ignored or utterly demoralizing. An example from a performance review for a federal government employee: “this employee sets low personal standards and then consistently fails to achieve them”. Ouch!

In addition, review writing often becomes cumbersome when managers don’t have good documentation of performance throughout the year. That being said, I have never met a manger that remembers to take consistent notes about performance throughout the entire course of the year. The resulting consequence is that the review tends to focus on the last few months, not the entire year. So, what’s a manager to do? There are several steps that can make the process less dreadful for all involved:

Document: Yes, it is hard and often gets put behind the 203 other issues that can pop up in a day, but you don’t need to write a book. Write yourself a quick email (two to three phrases) when both positive and negative performance comes to your attention. This type of documentation can be used as time-stamped documentation which can help you in corrective actions and terminations, you can also track an employee’s increasing and decreasing performance throughout the year (which may help you pinpoint issues), or it can simply be used to help you with writing specific feedback for your staff.

Make your reviews goal-focused: Your employees should be working towards specific, time-sensitive, measurable goals each year that fall in line with the overall goals you have for the clinic and the development areas your employee needs to improve to either be more effective or to grow to take on increased responsibility. Now, most of us know this; where I see managers slip up is on the “specific, time-sensitive, measurable” part. What I often see is “Monica’s technical skills need improvement.” This is extremely vague for an employee and they often will not ask you what you mean; rather, they will assume they understand and may spend time working on the wrong skill. “Monica needs to improve her anesthesia skills and get more hands on experience with dentals.  Monica needs to take additional training in these areas by March of 2010.” Written this way, this goal is either achieved or not, is specific, and has a deadline.  Your employee will know exactly what your expectations are and what they need to do to meet them.

Be specific: We often think employees know exactly what we mean. Writing “Monica needs to improve communication” is not, however, clear or specific. Who does she need to improve communication with? What is she doing that is causing a communication problem? A more effective way to write this is: “Monica needs to speak more slowly and less abruptly to clients. Several client complaints in the last few months resulted from Monica’s rushed statements, which caused the client confusion in understanding our discharge instructions.”

Get the employee’s help: Have your staff help you with their evaluations. How do they think they are doing? Often, people are either hyper critical of themselves or think they are the reason you are still in business. Usually neither is true, but their feedback can still be helpful is the information you request is focused. Ask them to sum up accomplishments and some projects that did not go as planned and explain what contributed to each. What are their career goals and what can you do to challenge them? This information may jog your memory of the last year and assist you in defining goals that are meaningful for your employees.

Not all reviews are created equal: While your Technicians should all be evaluated with the same general categories, your entire staff doesn’t need to be. Do your Kennel Assistants need to be rated on “innovation?” Probably not. Your associate veterinarians are another subject all together. I suggest keeping your staff veterinarian evaluations focused on bigger picture objectives, such as medical acumen, client communications, and leadership. Their goals should also be tied more directly to the clinic’s financial goals, which can be easily measured with production. Your veterinarian staff can also benefit from reviews that include feedback from you, their peers, and their support staff.

Don’t make the process overly complicated: Remember the point is to give regular, consistent, documented feedback. If the form you’re using now doesn’t work, change it.  Do whatever you can to make the process easier on yourself. If you want to write a paragraph on what’s working and what’s not– that works.  If you just want to write goals for your staff, fine. Do what works for you, otherwise, it will be a process that is avoided and “worked around.”

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Julie Poduch's picture

Great article - very thorough. As noted, it is important to get a range of inputs when doing reviews (supervisor, peers, subordinates, and a self assessment). The only other audience to add to that mix is the customers - if the practice solicits feedback from clients, and if the feedback is clear enough to identify the specific personnel then that input should be included in reviews as well (eg "Sally the vet tech was so helpful"; "Bob was short with me when he checked me in" etc)

Monica Maxwell's picture

Great suggestion Julie! Does anyone else include client feedback in your reviews and if so, how does your process work?

cindy van cott's picture

This was a good article. Too bad i turned in my performance reviews 2 days ago. I will definatley use this information for next years assessments.

Sarah Miller's picture

Great article... don't worry if you just finished your reviews when you came across this. The best time to revise and improve your process is in the year leading up to the next review!

Anna Limanti's picture

Hi Monica,
Do you have a template you'd be willing to share for employee reviews?