Performance Evaluations: An institutionalized instrument of torture

Susan M. Hann, P.E., AICP
Deputy City Manager
City of Palm Bay, Florida
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

In April 2006, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee concluded its series of articles on public works leadership entitled "The Baker's Menu." This was the second series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The committee's current series—entitled "The Baker's Potluck"—touches on a variety of leadership and management topics, many of which have been suggested by members. Included in this issue is the fourth in the series recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or

As a supervisor, one of your responsibilities is to evaluate a fellow human as to their worth to your organization and then put it in writing. Eeek! That doesn't sound like a very fun thing to do! Well, how do you handle this gem of an assignment?

  1. You ignore it and hope no one notices.
  2. You check all the "leaps tall buildings in a single bound" boxes and send off to HR—thinking your employee will jump for joy when he/she receives it and work even harder for you.
  3. You do a credible and accurate job evaluating your employee's performance and find yourself immersed in a lengthy grievance hearing that includes a discussion of all of your shortcomings.

Most supervisors have tried all of these approaches during their careers—probably with very poor results. This explains why I have never heard a supervisor say, "Wow—I can't wait to give Sue her performance evaluation. I think we will really connect and afterwards I can look forward to an unprecedented improvement in her performance. I am so grateful that the HR department has provided me with such an effective management tool!"

If the standard performance evaluation systems aren't dicey enough, you might be in one of those organizations that ties compensation to the performance evaluation. Once you have committed your position to writing, the next episode in the drama involves "supervisory comparisons." You will hear things like, "His boss gave him a 92.6 so he got a 3.2% raise, but you only rated me an 85.3, so I only got a 2.7% raise, but I'm better than him, so IT'S NOT FAIR!!" Good luck creating positive feelings in this environment.

Or you could be in an organization that requires periodic goal setting and measurement of performance against goals. That sounds okay, but thinking that through in the context of public service can make your head spin. This system can work well if you are making X number of widgets each day, but when you are juggling three zillion priorities, it is tough to make a list and check it twice. Goal setting has its place, but it can also lead to overemphasizing some activities at the expense of others: "Joe filled 2,436 potholes this year, up 2.8% from last year, but he was unable to remember to wear pants to work."

Seriously, goal setting is a positive step towards defining expectations and measuring performance, but both supervisor and employee will need some flexibility to deal with the ever-changing priorities and infinite variables in government work. I might want my design team to finish the Yellow Brick Road Extension design by the end of the year, but I can't hold them accountable for that project if the Emerald City Expressway project lands in our lap mid-year and takes priority.

Another helpful tool in this process is the one-size-fits-all evaluation form. For example, let's take the attendance category. This should be easy to quantify—right? If your employee shows up 40 hours per week and takes no sick days off but all holidays and vacation days earned, should that be rated as "below, meets or achieves" expectations? Poll ten supervisors in your office and see if you get the same answer. If your employee has earned leave and chooses to take it, is that okay or not? Is the employee who calls in sick every other Friday for mysterious reasons any better or worse than the employee who is out for five weeks under the provisions of the Family Medical Leave Act because their child is sick? If attendance is a quagmire, just imagine the difficulty passing judgment on such esoteric concepts as "dependability."

In most organizations, whether intentional or not, the performance evaluation process is geared towards the negative. What should the employee do better; what areas need improvement? If a supervisor checks the "pretty darn good" box, the next logical question from the employee is "Why didn't you check the 'incredible, but humble' box? What am I doing wrong?" The entire conversation between employee and supervisor drifts towards the negative.

In some organizations I have seen forced rankings of employees, so that not all employees can be ranked "perfect." The system requires some number of employees to be ranked "somewhat less than perfect" and "quite a bit less than perfect." This is an interesting way to build a team—clearly identify the weakest players and inspire them to undermine the strongest players. No wonder many supervisors would rather have a root canal than do performance evaluations.

So, what's the point? As a supervisor, you are stuck in a system that is dictated by your employer. What can you do to get out of this periodic requirement to hurt your employees' feelings while causing them to distrust you as a supervisor? Is there a better way?

Yes—and the better way is pretty simple. Provide your employees with continuous, direct and honest feedback and accept honest feedback from them. Talk to your staff and discuss issues regularly. If you are going to provide negative feedback to your employees during a formal evaluation, it should not be a surprise. It should be a confirmation of something you have been telling them repeatedly through the year. Similarly, frequent positive feedback is even more important. Praise good behavior and good results openly. Provide work-related counseling. Lead your team to do a better job by providing guidance and giving them opportunities to learn from mistakes without dire consequences.

A performance evaluation should be a continuum, not a point in time. On the day of the performance evaluation, an employee should already know the likely discussion points. If you and your employee have a radically different view of their performance, then you (as the supervisor) are not doing a very good job communicating your expectations.

The performance evaluation meeting can also be used as an opportunity for the supervisor to request some feedback from the employee about a variety of issues—including the supervisor's performance. Ask questions like, "Are there things I'm doing that are keeping you from doing your best work?" Or, "Are there things I could do differently that would help you do your job better?" This can help open the door to better communication and will also provide for a more balanced and less confrontational meeting.

So, how do you get on track to turn the performance evaluation into a more positive experience for both the supervisor and the employee? If you are the supervisor, start by scheduling yourself for some face-to-face time with each of your direct reports at least once per week. Find out what issues they have and inquire if you can help them. Let them know about any issues you might have. Use this as an opportunity to discuss any priority shifts.

This doesn't need to be a formal meeting; just put it on your calendar as a reminder and stop in to talk with your direct reports. Random scheduling works better as it is more informal and comfortable for conversation. As you talk with your employees make a list of commitments made on both sides and make absolutely sure to follow through on yours. If you've told your employee that you will get them better software by the end of the month, make sure you do it! Help your employees to follow through on their commitments. If you follow this system, by the time the annual employee performance evaluation rolls around, it should be a pleasant conversation about how well you work together.

If you are an employee and you are wondering whether your boss is about to fire you or erect a statue to you, it is time to start the conversation on your side. Make an appointment with your boss and check in. Ask how you're doing; ask if there are things he/she would like you to do differently; ask for some feedback on your work. Follow up by periodically checking back with your boss on how you're doing. This will minimize any surprises later and give you an opportunity to take corrective action before your shortcomings are committed to your permanent record!

This informal system of continuous communication is really all that is needed to maximize performance of the organization. So why do we continue to torture ourselves with the more formalized approach? Perhaps it is because "we've always done it this way!" In our organization, our City Manager has chosen not to do formal written evaluations of his department heads, but he definitely provides continuous feedback. Do we know what he expects? Absolutely! Personally, I'm grateful that he doesn't give me a check-the-box type of evaluation that goes in my file. I might get a   for dependability, but I'd definitely receive a   for neatness.

Sue Hann can be reached at (321) 952-3411 or

Bob Behn in his January 2006 issue of Bob Behn's Public Management Report suggests that government should end the practice of annual personnel evaluations. His thoughts can be found at

"This employee should go far, and the sooner he starts, the better."

"The wheel is turning, but the hamster is dead."

"His men would follow him anywhere, but only out of morbid curiosity."

"He doesn't have ulcers, but he's a carrier."

Source: James S. Higgins' Refrigerator Door

The Baker's Potluck Topics

  • Oral Presentation Skills
  • Coexisting with the Unions
  • Interviewing for the Right Skills
  • Performance Evaluations
  • Focus on Your Strengths
  • A Leader's Legacy
  • Identifying the Skills Needed for Crew Leaders and First-Time Supervisors
  • Mentoring for the Future
  • Leading through Change
  • Determining Your Level of Service
  • Connecting with Your Community
  • Creative Problem Solving
  • Creative Recruitment