Frequently Asked Questions – and Answers – About Performance Evaluations

Have questions about performance evaluations? We’ve got answers.

1. Is it okay to bring up an issue in an evaluation that I’ve never raised before? And how do I frame it if I do?

As we management pontificators (pontifs for short) like to say, nothing in a performance evaluation should be a surprise because you’ve been giving the staff member feedback throughout the year. But in reality, evaluations are a time when you step back to think more deeply about how a staff member is doing than you might in the day-to-day, which means that you might spot trends that might not have struck you as trends before, or you might simply think to frame something differently. Sometimes that’s just the nature of doing a deep evaluation.

If you find yourself in this situation, you’ll probably feel more comfortable if you’re transparent about it with the staff member. For instance, you could say something like, “I realize I’ve never brought this up before, but in reflecting on how things went this year, this occurred to me as something important we should discuss.”

2. How do we tie goals into performance evaluations?

The extent to which your staff members achieve their goals should be an important component of their performance evaluations. We like to see managers evaluate their staff members on both what they did – i.e., whether they achieved their goals and produced strong results – as well as how they did it. Frequently, evaluations focus only on the “how” component, commenting on whether a staff member collaborated well, showed up to work on time, or demonstrated particular skills. To be clear, the “how” is important too – but it shouldn’t overshadow the “what.”

You can see one example of how to do this by looking at our sample performance evaluation (or its shorter version). It first examines the results the staff member achieved against her goals, then looks at the “how” (alignment with the organization’s values), and wraps up with an overall summary.

3. What if we didn’t set goals at the start of the year?

If you don’t have formal goals to measure progress against, you can still do a rough assessment that asks, “What should the person have accomplished over this time period? What did they accomplish?”

(And make sure to set goals for the next evaluation period!)

4. How much should we take context or extenuating circumstances into account when assessing results?

It’s reasonable to take context into account. For instance, if your development director didn’t meet their fundraising goal for the year but it’s because the stock market dropped significantly, acknowledge that. Or, if they met their goal but only barely and primarily because of an unexpected large bequest, it’s reasonable to point out that they should have been able to vastly exceed the goal.

The fundamental question to ask at the end of the year is, “How do we feel about the results we produced?” Goals are a guidepost in helping you answer that — but you might answer that differently than a question that was simply about whether the goal was met. And particularly from a performance evaluation perspective, you want the focus to be on the results themselves.

5. If I’m giving feedback throughout the year, does it really make sense to spend time on formal evaluations?

Even when you’re diligent about giving feedback throughout the year, performance evaluations provide a structured time to jointly reflect on the big picture of someone’s performance. There’s real value in stepping back, reflecting, and going beyond individual pieces of feedback to paint an overall picture.

Evaluations are also great opportunities to find out how staff members are doing internally (happy, thinking of leaving in the next year, wanting more responsibility, etc.) – and in the case of lower performers, to send (additional) clear messages about needed improvements and provide an easy forum for discussing tenure implications.

6. How should the process work logistically? Should people fill out their own evaluation first? Should we meet to talk through what I’ve written?

There are several ways you can structure the process. We like to have the manager and managee each fill out an evaluation (a self-evaluation for the managee), exchange them ahead of time, and then meet to discuss. Alternately, some managers like to read over the staff member’s self-evaluation before writing their own evaluations (but there’s some danger here of swaying the manager’s view too much).

 7. When I’m writing an evaluation, should I solicit input from other people who work with the person? If so, what’s the best way to do that?

Yes! Getting feedback in confidence from others who work closely with the person is a great way to flesh out your understanding of their work. If the people you’re evaluating manage their own teams, it’s especially important to talk in confidence with their team members. Of course, be transparent with all parties that you’re doing this.

When providing input that you’ve received from others, it’s usually best to synthesize it with some sample quotes, generally without attribution. (And you may get more candid input if you explain that to the people from whom you’re seeking input.) For instance, part of an evaluation might say something like, “I spoke to a number of folks in other departments with whom you work. The general view was that you’re responsive but that you sometimes overcomplicate things. For instance, one person said, ‘I wish I could have a two-minute discussion and move on – feels like we always need to have a 45-minute meeting even for pretty simple issues.’”

Some organizations like to use formal 360 reviews for this purpose, but in our experience they require an enormous amount of energy that isn’t always justified by the return. (That said, 360’s can be valuable in cases where it will inform an extremely important decision, such as elevating a state director to a key national role.)

8. What if a staff person writes a self-evaluation that rates their own performance far more highly than I do?

Use it as an opportunity to find out what’s causing the disconnect! Have you not been clear about expectations and where the person is falling short? Did the person have different ideas than you did about what was most important to achieve in her job this year? Were there extenuating circumstances that got in the way of progress that you didn’t know about? Whatever the answer, it’s a good thing that the evaluation process is bringing the question to the surface and giving you an opportunity to get re-aligned about the expectations for the role. And if push really comes to shove, you can always say something like, “Well, I know we’re still not on the same page about this past year, but I want to make sure we’re both really clear about the bar going forward.”

 9. Is there anything special I should do in performance evaluations for very high performers?

Make the primary point of your evaluation to recognize high performers’ work and ensure that they feel valued! If giving constructive feedback – and high performers do value the chance to learn, so don’t avoid it – make sure you set the appropriate context with language like, “So, you completely hit the ball out of the park. In that frame, if I had to give you suggestions on ways to go even further next year, I might point to…”

You can also use this as an opportunity to take about what their future tenure with the organization might be. What might the “next level” look like for them? Are there new responsibilities and challenges they’d like to take on? And importantly, how might you get them to sign on for another two years?