A Publication of WTVP

Are performance evaluations unethical? Some of my clients have never done performance evaluations. They believe employment in Illinois is on an at-will basis and there’s no need for evaluation, especially when it’s linked to continuing employment. Others have tried evaluations only to find them useless, especially when tied to compensation. Still others evaluate employees by sitting down with them once a year for a “how’s it going?” conversation.

For those who never have evaluated employees, at-will employment goes only so far. Disgruntled employees are more than willing to sue for wrongful termination, or they do a lot of damage to an employer’s reputation. For those who have given up on performance evaluations, the fault may be in the evaluation process itself.

Here’s the way performance evaluations often work. Using a standard form identifying key employee activities and performance indicators, a supervisor rates an employee’s performance and perhaps sets some goals for the employee to achieve in the next year within those performance indicators. An employee may do a self-evaluation, and that document is compared to the supervisor’s evaluation. And here’s where a performance evaluation becomes unethical and unworkable.

The problem with this method is that it’s one-sided. Only the employee’s performance is measured, and if the method outlined above is used, the employee is compared to a set of generic traits and practices of the “excellent employee.” What’s more, the evaluation is based on a supervisor’s opinion or interpretation of an employee’s behavior. In the end, this method is limited and subjective.

But there are two other problems. First, there is a lack of context. The employee’s performance isn’t tied to the goals and strategies of the company or organization. What did the employee actually do to assist in market growth, quality improvement, financial integrity, team spirit, or other key objectives? In the typical evaluation, employees have no context. How do they know they’re moving the organization forward?

Second, there’s a lack of accountability. One set of evaluations I examined contained examples of specific shortcomings in employee performance, but no reference to problems in the company’s work process or failures in the supervisors’ follow-through.

In one case, an employee was downgraded because he failed on several occasions to get work done in a timely fashion. But there was no mention that the employee could not follow through because of delays in another department, or that budgets were cut mid-year so he had to take on several additional responsibilities. It’s incredibly unfair to hold employees accountable for elements beyond their control or for problems within the workplace as a whole.

In another case, an employee was downgraded because she didn’t communicate “adequately” with her supervisor about problems or issues. But nowhere in the evaluation was it noted the supervisor consistently failed to return phone calls or e-mails from this employee and often indicated she didn’t have time to devote to this employee’s concerns—and directing her “to solve the problems herself.” That’s unethical, especially because there’s no way for this employee to indicate what she did to try to communicate well.

A fair and ethical performance evaluation system is one that’s transparent. Employees need to have full disclosure of information that has an impact on their work performance and goals. Often, managers will reply, “Well, we can’t let that information out because it will fall into our competitors’ hands.” Then the question is whether the managers trust the employees—which is a managerial problem. If the employee has this information, they can correct their own performance problems that may be hindering goal achievement.

Supervisors and managers also need to spell out how they’ll be accountable for providing what employees need to achieve—whether training, financial resources, additional help, more space—and then to reconcile in the performance evaluation whether they followed through in giving the employees what they needed to do their work.

Leaders in businesses and organizations can do three things to make performance evaluations fairer and more useful. First, clearly identify strategy with performance targets and improvements—and share this information throughout the organization. Secondly, train employees in the rationale for a transparent evaluation system so everyone can be focused on performance and off of personality preferences. Finally, focus on team-building instead of turf maintenance, especially with managers and supervisors. Transparency means everyone is accountable for the performance of the entire organization.

We do need performance evaluations to provide some benchmarks for whether we’re doing a good job—but they need to be fair and ethical when they’re complete. IBI