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Photo: South Agency
Photo: South Agency
November 1, 2021 8:00 AM CDT

A Lesson From A Bad Employee Evaluation

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Imagine if your employer walked up to you one day out of the blue and said, “It is time for your employee evaluation.” Now, you have never had one before, didn’t know the company even did them, and couldn’t imagine what in the world you were going to talk about. How would you react? 

Well, I got to see this scenario played out around 20 years ago. At the time we were having some problems with an employee. They were all just typical problems and nothing warranting dismissal of the employee, but nonetheless things we could not ignore any longer. 

I helped the company devise a checklist of items that were important to the owner. We decided to base it on a standard 1-5 scale, with some additional comments at the end that the employee could read. It was our hope that we could remind the employee that we were watching, but did not want to create a situation where they quit. Even 20 years ago it was hard for a small company to find good help. 

After a few weeks of back and forth on the structure, ratings, metrics, etc. we had finally agreed on a one-page evaluation form. As a side note, I still have a copy of it to remind me of what transpired. We also agreed that every employee would get one as to not “single out” any one person. What felt like a great idea on paper to “help” the one employee turned into a mockery at best. Why? Let us dive into it.

First, the owner never took it as seriously as needed. In his mind, it was only for one employee, so that employee got most of the focus. It even went as far as telling one of the good employees that it wasn’t a big deal, letting them skip it, and just handing him a chicken scratched evaluation form. This completely undermined the process, and it was just the start. 

The underperforming employee was blindsided by a 30-minute sit-down where the entire conversation must have felt like an attack on his weak spots. Thankfully I was not in the room, but I could tell by the following weeks that it did not go well. This employee’s attitude went from tolerable to outright combative. The employee gave off an aura of mutiny more than self-progress. It was a disaster. 

The worst part of the entire thing is that the employee evaluation program was immediately scrapped, and never to be discussed again. To me, it seemed like maybe it was only designed to infuriate one employee into quitting. And that is not what employee evaluations should be.

Thankfully, I have learned a lot more over the years. I have had the pleasure of being an employee, an owner, a partner, a trusted consultant, and a network peer to many. After 20 years have passed since my first attempt, I approach employee evaluations much differently. 

If you go back through my thirty-plus articles, multiple webinars, and just about every conversation I have with fellow business owners, I harp on communication. Communication is the key to any successful company, system, evaluation, or relationship. If you want to hold employee evaluations, do not do what we did all those years ago. Communicate with all employees that they will happen, and what you should expect from them. Never blindside an employee with an evaluation, it absolutely feels like a personal attack from which they will never recover. 

Evaluations should also be about both sides of the equation, strengths, and weaknesses. Too many evaluations are singularly focused on the weaknesses an employee has, and how the company doesn’t like them. Remember as owners and leaders our job is to put people in positions to succeed. This means using their strengths to overcome someone else’s weaknesses. This overlapping approach is the fabric of a successfully growing and operating company. 

Another point to remember is that humans are incentive-based. We do things because there is the proverbial carrot at the end of the stick we are chasing. This is why I prefer to have employee evaluation results as a prerequisite to compensation adjustments. Too many companies set compensation and raise milestones based on nothing more than time. Just because an average employee has been with you 10 years, does not mean that he should make more than the excellent employee that has only been there 5. It bastardizes what you are wanting out of the employee. Basically, that system rewards them for longevity, not growth, harmony, and teamwork. 

By tying employee evaluations to compensation, you can pinpoint the individual growth you are looking for, and effectively communicate to the employee how they can reach the carrot you are dangling. 

Ok, so you have designed a good evaluation, you have communicated it well, and you even tied it into the employee pay scale. Now you are sitting there, across from your first evaluation, and have no clue where to go. The apprehension in the room is apparent. What now? Your employee probably has the feeling that he is set somewhere between a raise and a guillotine. How do you think they will respond in that situation?

An employee evaluation is not a disciplinary meeting. That is what we tried to do all those years ago, and we were wrong. An employee evaluation needs to be upbeat, upfront, and on the topic of how WE can make the company, and the employee experience, better. 

When I start an employee evaluation, I like to steal a page from the KISS method. A simple “How is it going?” goes a long way. I am a firm believer that the process should include, and start with, the employee evaluating you! Give them the opportunity to address what concerns them. Ask them about a recent change you made, or a bad project, and allow them to speak honestly about it. How is it affecting them, what could have been better, what did I do wrong? All of these questions can lend some great insight into how the company is truly operating. 

Next, focus on strengths. We do not want to overwhelm our employees with everything they need to fix. We need them to know what we appreciate about them. Always on time? Quality conscious? Great attitude? Tell them. Talk to them about how these things can spill over into others and that you are grateful that they have those qualities. 

Now, it is not off limits to discuss some things that need improving, but it should not be the focus of the evaluation. If you need to have that focused on a conversation, you need to have a disciplinary meeting, not an evaluation. 

There are many things that you can learn through trial and error when it comes to employee evaluations. You will find that some things work with some employees, and won’t work at all with others. The goal is to not breed robots, nor is the goal to belittle employees. The goal is to make your company better. That is why you should always do three things with employee evaluations; Communicate, Compensate, and Listen. 


About the Author

Corey Adams Is Vice President of Kelly Lang Contractors, Inc. He also speaks on entrepreneurship to trade schools, and is a Certified CE instructor.

 

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