An HR Lesson from the Presidential Debate

I never discuss politics. Never. I don’t have the stomach for it, to be honest, and I avoid the subject like the plague. That said, I did manage to watch part of the Presidential Debate on Tuesday night. There are ample pundits who surely have more insightful (i.e., political) commentary than what I can offer. So I’ll gladly leave the politics to others and stick with what I know–employment law. Here’s one HR-related lesson that I took away from the debate.

One of the hottest topics of post- debate discussion was Mitt Romney’s comment about “binders full of women.” I’ll admit–when I heard him say that, I cringed. It just sounded so wrong.

But I’ll admit that I cringed for another reason. I assume Mr. Romney did not actually plan to say that he’d looked at “binders full of women.” Surely he meant to say that he’d reviewed binders full of resumes of female candidates. But, alas, those were not the words that he said. And now he’s stuck with the ones he did say.

And that’s the lesson for HR professionals. Be careful with your words–they’re hard to get rid of once they’ve been said and even more difficult to escape once they’ve been committed to paper.

I used to teach a seminar called, “Help Me Help You.” The theme of the seminar was effective documentation for supervisors and HR professionals. My slide deck consisted of real-life examples of documentation “done wrong.” One slide, for example, showed an excerpt of hand-written notes taken by a supervisor who later became the alleged wrongdoer in an age-discrimination case. He’d taken the notes during a pitch presentation by an outside vendor and had written, “would be good work for young project managers.”

What he meant, he explained at his deposition, was that the work offered good opportunities for junior project managers–not necessarily young ones. I have no doubt that his explanation was an honest one. But that didn’t make it any less uncomfortable when asked about it by the EEOC attorney who was deposing him.

There are more stories like this than I can possibly recount–although someday I may try if I ever getting around to writing my memoir of life as an employment lawyer. The point, though, is this: Words are cheap. Their consequences can be very, very costly. So choose wisely.

Poor Client Management and High Expectations

There has been a common element in each of the most difficult cases I’ve litigated–poor client management. What this means in a broad sense is a lawyer who fails to properly manage his client’s expectations. This occurs for any number of reasons. For example, the lawyer may not have a good grasp of the case or of the applicable law and, for that reason, may have a severely inflated sense of the value of his client’s claims.

The client is not always without fault, either. I’ve seen particularly manipulative or just plain bossy clients push their lawyer to do one thing or another and simply refuse to relent until they get their way. I usually see this exhibited during depositions. My opposing counsel brings his client to the deposition of my witness. Throughout the deposition, the client scribbles notes frantically, ripping pages out of a notebook and thrusting them across the table to his lawyer.

Inevitably, the lawyer relents and asks the question proposed by his client. And, inevitably, it’s a flop. The question is out of context, irrelevant, and often poorly stated. It makes the lawyer look foolish and throws him off course.

A good lawyer knows better than to let this happen in the first place. When it is appropriate to bring a client to a deposition or court hearing, the good lawyer explains in advance what his role is and what the client’s role is. If the client gets caught up in the moment and temporarily forgets those instructions, the lawyer simply takes a break at the next opportunity and tells the client to please keep her notes until the next break, when he will be glad to review them.

So what does client management have to do with today’s workplace? In short, the transferrable lesson relates to managing expectations. Whether you are dealing with your direct supervisor, your assistant, or your own clients or customers, expectations are essential.

We are all responsible for setting our own rules and then abiding by them consistently. If you give your cell phone number to clients and encourage them to call you “anytime,” don’t be short with them when they do. Similarly, if you allow employees to “tease” a coworker because of his accent, don’t be surprised when the “teasing” spreads to gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation.

It is the responsibility of every manager to set the expectations for employee behavior. These expectations are set in part by example and in part by responding immediately and consistently to every failure to meet those expectations.

Performance Evaluations: Let’s Talk About It

Just how useful are traditional performance evaluations? According to a recent study by SHRM and Globoforce, not very. 45% of the HR professionals surveyed reported that performance reviews are not an accurate appraisal of employees’ performance. And 42% don’t believe that employees are given rewards commensurate with their performance.

Is anyone really surprised by these statistics? I mean, when was the last time you heard a group of HR professionals, managers, or even employees, cheer enthusiastically about the value of the performance review?

Okay, after you’ve stopped laughing hysterically at the thought, consider the suggestion of Globoforce CEO Eric Mosely in his post on the Harvard Business Review Blog. Mosely’s idea is to “crowdsource” your organization’s next performance reviews. In other words, solicit regular feedback from everyone who works with employee being reviewed. Don’t limit your sources to only the employee’s manager or direct supervisor. And don’t wait until the end of the year and expect the reviewer to have sudden recall of the past 12 months.

I’m not entirely sold on the idea, frankly, but also am not entirely opposed to it. How could I be opposed to an improved performance-evaluation system? After all, I, too, am an employee and I, too, suffer through the annual review process. But crowdsourcing?

One concern I would have is the potential karma-inducing effect. If I know that my annual review is dependent on ongoing commentary made by coworkers, I wonder if I wouldn’t, consciously or subconsciously, dole out extra servings of positive commentary to my own coworkers in the hope that they would feel the love and pass it right back to me. Would we, at the end of the day just be patting one another on the back as a defensive mechanism?

How can the idea be improved? I do have one suggestion–remove the “independent” factor. Instead of having coworkers give their comments independent from and without the input of others, who may also be submitting feedback. Instead, what if the commenters were required, at least once a year, to meet and discuss the comments they’ve given or intend to give.

At least in the legal profession, my colleagues and I have no problem battling it out to defend our positions. If reasonable minds and voices can prevail, such a discussion may give commenters a more accurate perspective with which to frame their comments prior to their submission.

I can imagine that this technique would be particularly beneficial where an instance of poor performance was an isolated instance. If the commenter was able to hear about positive performance examples, it may help put the negative experience into context. Or, if a commenter has unreasonably high expectations, hearing others discussing their own standards may, again, provide some needed context.

At the end of the day, as I’ve previously written, it’s hard to write a good performance evaluation. Any effort to improve a defunct system is a positive step in the right direction. Even if it doesn’t remove all of the flaws, forward is always better, so I’d encourage employers to try it and see whether it works for their particular workforce.

If You Don’t Ask for Feedback, How Do You Know How You’re Doing?

Ahh, feedback.  It’s a tricky pill to swallow, isn’t it? When performance-review time comes around and you’re making a list of all of the areas in which you want your employees to improve, maybe you should ask yourself a few questions first. Have you really done everything that you can to address problems as they arise? Or have you waited until formal reviews to bring up those little problems that have become bigger problems?

The best leaders know that regular feedback is essential to an effective working relationship.

If you are looking for a creative way to get and receive feedback, there’s a website for you.  BetterMe gives users a way to give “private, anonymous feedback.”  You can give feedback to anyone–even if they’re not registered with the site.  You can also ask for feedback from others.  Good idea?  Well, an interesting one, indeed.

A New Take On An Old Practice: Rethinking the Performance Review

“Get Rid of the Performance Review!” That was the title of an article in Monday’s WSJ. I’m certain many employees read the headline and thought, “If only it were that easy.” In the article, author Samuel A. Culbert promotes nixing the tired annual performance review in favor of a “preview.”

His message is simple: instead of looking back, think about what’s going to happen next. The essence is that instead of reviewing what your employees did, consider what they are going to do and how they will achieve their goals in the future. It’s sensible and makes good business sense to have your employees think about what they are going to do better, not what already happened that can’t be fixed. Culbert rightly advocates that a boss should “guide, coach tutor, provide oversight and generally do whatever is required to assist a subordinate to perform successfully.”

But, because of the anxieties associated with a performance review, that goal is lost to things like concerns over pay raises and disruptions to teamwork. In Culbert’s alternative, a preview becomes an exercise in problem-solving and promotes discussions among teammates who are going to work together more effectively and efficiently than in the past. A preview focuses on the future, and, according to Culbert, “promotes straight-talk relationships for people who are up to it.” Although a preview may not be for the fainthearted, it can be a useful mechanism to re-tool your old performance review checklist in favor of a more dynamic activity aimed at promoting employee and business development.

Employee Evaluations: What’s the Right Rating System?

Performance reviews and evaluations are a sensitive topic for employers and employees, alike. Diligent, thoughtful managers, want to craft the most accurate and effective employee evaluations without triggering hostility or damaging relationships. How to word a performance evaluation is a major source of mystery for most everyone. It’s difficult to give “sample” language for use on an employee evaluation. The better approach is to start with the actual evaluation system that is in place. Does it meet the needs of your organization? More importantly, do reviewers actually understand how to use it? And do they all understand it in the same way?

For those of you brave enough to tackle your company’s performance-evaluation system, I applaud you! It’s a very worthwhile effort, even if you meet great resistance. Below, I discuss the four basic types of rating systems. Once you know how you want to rate, then you can decide what you want to rate. Put the two together, and you’re off to the races.

There are variety of ways to rate an employee’s performance. Generally, though, there are four common approaches used by the majority of businesses. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Below is a summary of the four types. The benefits and pitfalls will be discussed in a subsequent post.

Numerical Rating. Each attribute or objective is rated with a number, usually on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest level of performance.

Evaluation. The employee is rated on his or her level of performance for the targeted objectives. Words such as Unsatisfactory, Satisfactory, and Superior are commonly used to rate how the employee performs each objective. Other language may include Distinguished, Superior, Fully Satisfactory, Fair, and Incompetent. In this model, the employee is not rated against anyone but himself and the reviewer’s expectations.

Behavioral Frequency. In this system, a list of targeted behaviors are identified and assigned a frequency, with the most frequent representing the highest level of achievement. An example might be: “Employee submits monthly budgets in a timely and complete fashion.” And the ratings may range from Rarely, to Sometimes, to Frequently, to Usually, to Always.

Comparison-Based. This rating system compares the performance of the employee to a pre-determined standard. For example, the employee may Meet the Standard, Exceed the Standard, Partially Meet the Standard, and so forth.

See also: It’s hard to write a good employee evaluation. Get over it.

It’s Hard to Write a Good Employee Performance Evaluation. Get Over It.

Employee performance reviews are hard, aren’t they? Much fuss is made about them–by senior management, by HR, by Legal, and, of course, by the employee receiving the review. Get over it.  That’s what separates managers from non-managers. 

Writing a performance review is a learned skill and requires a lot of practice to get even close to getting them “right.”  Yet, many (or most) companies fail to provide training to supervisors on how to prepare an effective and legally compliant employee performance review.  If you’re one of those companies, do yourself a favor and start that training now.  If you’re a supervisor in one of those companies, here’s the top 3 things you can do now to write a better performance evaluation. 


1.  Be [Painfully] Honest. 

Do not sugar-coat your comments.  Yes, it can hurt to give a less-than stellar performance review.  Too bad–it’s your job.  And it’s also in your own best interest.  Just ask any supervisor who’s had to testify in a discrimination case brought by a former employee where the cross-examination went like this:

Q:  Mr. Jones, why did you terminate Mr. Smith?

A:  Because Mr. Smith was a terrible employee.

Q:  Can you give the jury some examples of the terrible conduct?

A:  Oh, sure.  He was always late.  He didn’t get along with any of his co-0workers and was always causing disagreements in the office.  He was disrespectful and insubordinate, making inappropriate comments to me and other managers regularly. 

Q: Anything else?

A:  Yes, actually.  He had an overall terrible attitude.  He was not a team player.  He refused to help his coworkers.  Just overall hostile to everyone.

Q:  I’d like to move in Plaintiff’s Exhibit 8, please.  Mr. Jones, can you please tell the Court what that document is that I’ve just entered into evidence?

A:  This is Mr. Smith’s performance evaluation.  This was the last one I wrote for him–probably about 4 months before he was fired.

Q:  And what rating did you give Mr. Smith in this employee performance evaluation?

A:  “Satisfactory.”

Q:  So, Mr. Jones, were you lying then or are you lying now?

2.  Use Your Big-Boy [or -Girl] Words

We know you’ve got some in that vocabulary of yours.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t have made you a big-boy [or -girl] boss.  Well, this is the time to use them.  And we’re not talking about big words, as in the number of letters.  We’re talking about descriptive words.  Words that actually describe some action, attitude, incident, or conduct.

My second-grade English teacher prohibited the use of “very”, “clearly”, “nice” and “good.”  Why?  Because they’ve lost meaning through overuse.  The same applies to you.  Heck, go crazy and grab that dust-covered thesaurus from your bookshelf (or just use an online thesaurus and save yourself the allergies). 

I’ll even get you started with some examples:

Don’t write:  Bob has good communication skills.

Do write:  Bob generated several well-written memos during the budgeting process that were particularly useful in guiding our assessment decisions. 

Or, write:  During planning meetings, Bob actively listens to his coworkers without disruption and, when appropriate, shares his position candidly but respectfully.


Don’t write:  Jessica’s sales numbers last quarter were very good.

Do write:  Last quarter, Jessica exceeded her projected sales by 18%.

Or write:  Jessica’s sales have increased by at least 12% for the last 5 quarters–far exceeding the levels of sustained increased demonstrated by her colleagues.


Don’t write:  Ron needs to improve his attention to detail.

Write:  Although Ron’s work is submitted promptly, he seems to compromise accuracy for timeliness.  The finishing details of his projects, such as the final budget calculations, frequently contain errors.

Or write:  In an attempt to be as thorough as possible, Ron’s reports often contain more data than is necessary.  This results in a cluttered presentation, which appears cluttered and disorganized.  Some additional attention given to the aesthetic of the report will prevent this problem. 


3.  Prove It.

That’s right.  Don’t just say it.  Back it up.  Give a specific example for each area you’re asked to comment on.  Too difficult?  If you can’t articulate a specific example, then don’t write it.  If called on later to support the evaluation, it’s a sure bet that you won’t be able to produce any examples then.  So write it down now. 

It also gives you credibility with the employee.  Without examples, what makes you think the employee is going to believe you?  He thinks he is a great employee.  Do you think he’ll change his mind with a comment like, “improve attention to detail”?  Doubtful.  On the other hand, if you spell it out with real examples, including how the employee’s conduct impacted his co-workers, the team, or the organization as a whole, it’s a lot more difficult to challenge the validity of the review. 

I know you’re getting the hang of it now, so I’ll give just one example. 

Instead of:  Jackie’s attendance needs improvement. 

Try:  Jackie has been absent 8 times this quarter–far exceeding the 2 absences permitted by company policy.  More troubling is that, on 6 of the 8 occasions, Jackie called out of work just before her shift started.  These unplanned absences require her supervisor to find a substitute at the last minute.  Not only is this an inconvenience to her coworkers, but it often requires the company to pay the substitute at a premium hourly rate, which is an unnecessary and avoidable expense.