Spice up your job evaluation


Performance reviews are the fruitcake of management. Nobody really wants to give them because everybody knows that nobody wants to get them. The worst of it is that someday the receiver will probably give that same fruitcake to someone else.

Performance reviews don’t have to be like that, though. Smart people try to get more out of the review process, and new and better approaches are out there. So, toss that fruitcake into the trash and try a new recipe. Here’s how.

Set the tone. IT managers at the University of Miami don’t do job reviews; they conduct performance appraisals. “This sets expectations” that the process will look forward, not backward, said Stewart Seruya, the university’s assistant vice-president and chief security officer for IT.

That subtle change in focus can help transform the dreaded review into a look at the future and the employee’s role in it. “If people are focused on what we really want to accomplish as a department, we get people committed to the goals,” said Laura DeLain, deputy resource director in the IT department at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Milwaukee. “They think about what’s important and how they can make a contribution.”

Think strategically. Use the performance appraisal to compare employee qualifications against key skills needed in the company, analyst Samuel Bright advised in a recent Forrester Research Inc. report on hot IT skills. This approach enables managers to focus training, set development goals and reward employees who acquire hot skills, Bright says.

Time it right — for you. IT managers do appraisals at various times — the end of the calendar year, the anniversary of workers’ start dates or a time that coincides with key decisions, such as setting pay increases. What matters most isn’t when you do the appraisal but that you have a good reason for doing it when you do.

At insurer Aetna Inc. in Hartford, Conn., for example, corporate executives set companywide goals as they approach the end of the calendar year, said Ruth Stern, head of Aetna Information Services (AIS) delivery operations. Those goals cascade down into expectations for the AIS group and then into team and individual balanced scorecards. Because these scorecards relate to one another, the appraisals on which they are based are done on a specific schedule, Stern said.

Don’t review; manage. Job reviews happen once a year, but career management is ongoing. Schedule regular follow-up meetings at set intervals to ensure staff are on track and hitting targets.

At Reston, Va.-based SLM Corp., commonly known as Sallie Mae, IT workers have yearly reviews with at least one midyear follow-up “to make sure there are no surprises and so we can modify goals,” said Karen Kotowski, senior vice-president of applications development. “It all falls under the framework for managing talent.”

Get a broad view. There are various sources of input for performance appraisals, so don’t pick just one. “I don’t believe there is a ‘best’ [type of] review for IT professionals. All types are valuable in their own right,” said Cindy Reynolds, vice-president of IT operations at Discover Financial Services LLC in Riverwoods, Ill. She favours self-evaluations as they let the employee and the manager see where their perceptions differ. She also finds 360-degree and peer evaluations useful if they are done anonymously and point out both strengths and areas for improvement. But be careful, Reynolds warns. “I have observed some that simply provide a forum for criticism, which can be destructive and demotivating.”

Talk about tomorrow. Use appraisals to nurture employee aspirations. At Mount Carmel Health System, employees list work-related goals and professional development aspirations as part of their annual appraisals, said John Lawson, vice-president of information resources operations at the Columbus, Ohio-based organization, which is under the umbrella of Trinity Health Systems.

A programmer who wants to move into project management, for example, should use his review to articulate that goal, which might otherwise go unnoticed in the day-to-day grind, Lawson said.

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