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Tuning-Up Performance — Fiorenza

January 2007
CHANCES ARE, you have played out this scene before, in one of the roles. It’s time for the annual performance evaluation—an event despised by all, except possibly human resource managers, consultants and employment lawyers. The manager and her employee (or maybe “associate” or “team member”) gather uncomfortably around a table. The manager stumbles upon what seems like the perfect ice-breaker: “I can tell that you don’t want to be here any more than I do—I can’t believe they make us do this.”

The scene illustrates the most common issue our firm sees sabotaging performance evaluation systems of all types—management’s lack of belief in, and commitment to, its own process. While there are many types of evaluation systems, ranging from the simplest to the most complex, there are a number of universal standards by which all such programs can be judged.

No matter what the policy manual or evaluation forms may say, performance evaluations are more often than not viewed as an assessment of the personal worth of an employee. It’s difficult to offer objective criticisms, and more difficult to receive them.

While often touted as a communications tool that helps build employee morale and productivity, many organizations experience an increase in tensions and a decrease in productivity around evaluation time. Combat this by clearly defining why evaluations are conducted and where they fit within the overall organization.

Successful evaluation programs have clearly defined purposes. These include ensuring that input from employees on their positions and the organization as a whole is understood and considered; that a sound basis exists for daily personnel decisions such as promotions, transfers, layoffs and discharges; that compensation issues are fairly evaluated; and that consistency is maintained throughout the organization.

Employees should learn during their orientation, and be periodically reminded of, the organization’s policy concerning performance evaluation, including how and why formal evaluations are utilized.

Many performance evaluation systems are doomed from the start. They are too complex, too esoteric, and they do not meaningfully reflect the employee’s work environment or other aspects of an organization’s culture. The best employee evaluation programs are those that have been developed after direct input from super-visors and managers—and sometimes the workforce as a whole. Most pre-packaged evaluation forms lull managers into a sense of complacency—that the evaluation is a “connect-the-dots” process.

Managers must be given tools that are tailored to their work environment. In the printing industry, at a minimum, a good evaluation program has to treat production, sales, supervisory and clerical areas distinctly. Usually, simpler is better and the shortest, easiest to complete form that analyzes critical performance criteria is the appropriate one for your group.

While the importance of training in all aspects of human resources management is now becoming commonly understood, performance appraisals are one critical area where training is an absolute must. Like any other tool, an evaluation program cannot achieve positive results unless people know how to use it. In fact, a lot of damage can be done if the program is used the wrong way.

Training is important to ensure that the positive communication and morale benefits of an evaluation system are maximized. Managers need an opportunity to learn the basic concepts of successful evaluation programs. They need to role play, or practice how to communicate in this difficult setting. In addition to the basic communication skills required, supervisors must also be trained as to the potential legal significance of performance evaluations and the documents created as part of the process.

Detailed Documentation

Performance evaluations are “Exhibit 1” in most cases of wrongful termination and employment discrimination. We commonly see situations where employees are fired for ongoing poor performance, while at the same time having recent performance appraisals ranking them, overall, as “satisfactory” employees.

Performance evaluations must be consistent with the rest of the documentation in an employee’s personnel file, and supervisors must be trained to ensure such consistency. Managers must be specifically trained to avoid the creation of negative documentation in the evaluation process and to limit their evaluation and written comments to job related, objective, observable and, where possible, quantifiable factors.

Much managerial and employee resistance to performance evaluations is rooted in the fact that such procedures have no connection to anything else perceived as important to the organization. To succeed, employee appraisal and development systems must not be static, “paperwork” programs.

Ideally, these systems are based on the recognition that every employee, supervisor, manager and top-level executive benefits from an ongoing, open system of communication that directly relates to overall company goals and objectives.

The performance evaluation system is part of communicating where an employee fits within an organization, where her contributions have mattered, and where there is room for improvement.

It is a process that recognizes and documents successes in terms that relate to overall company goals—quality improvement, new markets, dedicated work ethic, positive work environment, etc.—and does the same when documenting failures such as lost customers, spoiled work, poor attitude, etc.

The successful employee appraisal system does not simply evaluate events, but connects daily work events to the overall outcome achieved by the employee, at her job, in her department, and by the organization. Such evaluations provide the opportunity to truly concentrate on the many intangibles of the work environment.

They lead managers and supervisors away from concluding that the argumentative, negative, bullying employee is their “best worker” and instead enhance recognition that job performance encompasses more than simply what is done. Performance is just as much about how tasks are performed, and whether employees enhance or undermine the work environment around them.

Organizations should take an honest look at themselves, the overload of overall day-to-day responsibilities, and the downside to administering ill conceived and poorly thought out evaluation procedures. If it is unrealistic for your organization to truly commit to a positive and effective employment evaluation system, consider eliminating the formal process altogether. PI


About the Author
Nicholas J. Fiorenza is managing partner of the employment law firm of Ferrara, Fiorenza, Larrison, Barrett & Reitz, P.C., and longtime association counsel to the Printing and Imaging Association of New York State and its members. He is also president of Delacroix Consulting Group, the human resources consulting component of the law firm. For more information, visit




The graphic communications industry is facing some very serious challenges, but that doesn't mean there isn't still a lot of life and opportunity in our future. 

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Topics include: 
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• A ten-step process to survive and thrive Competing for Print’s Thriving Future

The graphic communications industry is facing some very serious challenges, but that doesn't mean there isn't still a lot of life and opportunity in our future. “Competing for Print's Thriving Future” focuses on how printers can create their own positive future by understanding and taking advantage of the  changes that...




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