Evaluating Employee Evaluations

Posted by: Anne Ciesla Bancroft, Esq. and Najeeb Ahmad, founder of Pennington Human Dynamics, specializing in talent management consulting.

Accurate evaluations are critical in supporting performance-based adverse employment decisions, whether an employee is terminated for poor performance or chosen for a reduction in force as a relatively poor performer.  Too often evaluations are missing, sugar-coated, or, based on unsupported assumptions and stereotypes.   In contrast,  businesses that treat evaluations as an investment in employee talent can reap significant benefits.

Employers can use evaluations to:

Manage talent: The evaluation process presents an ideal opportunity to identify the strongest performers, those with the greatest potential, and those whose career development and impact in the organization will benefit from new opportunities. Well-grounded evaluations provide critical data to assess whether key employees are appropriately matched to the right opportunities, as well as to identify potential successors for critical vacancies or openings created by employees who change roles. Avoid the common mistake of focusing on form over substance, which can lead to the creation of lists that simply get placed in a file. Whenever possible, ensure that specific action steps and accountabilities are identified and periodically reviewed to assess progress.


Improve employee performance: In order to be an effective tool in improving performance, evaluations must be constructive, specific, and performance-focused. Providing positive feedback is easy. It is also important. Employees can find positive evaluations rewarding and motivating. More challenging is an assessment that an employee does not want to hear. Employers need to emphasize the importance of constructive, objective feedback to the evaluation process, even in the face of employee opposition.


Employees must be given the opportunity to review and sign off on their evaluations.  Employers should have a written policy that refusal to sign an evaluation can subject an employee to discipline, including termination. An employee is not indicating that s/he agrees with the evaluation; his or her signature is simply an acknowledgement of review and receipt. Signed evaluations should be maintained in an employee’s personnel file.


Improve employer performance:   360 degree reviews can give employees an opportunity to evaluate their supervisor.   It can provide an invaluable tool for supervisors to understand how they can lead more effectively and develop their employees, as well as to reinforce effective behaviors. Employee feedback can also assist employers in identifying abusive and even unlawful conduct, such as workplace bullying or sexual harassment. 


Improve morale and engagement:   One of the clearest paths to enhancing morale is to create an environment where employees know what is expected of them, where they stand, and what they can do to improve; an effective evaluation process helps accomplish all of these objectives. At the same time, a process that is perceived as “going through the motions,” unclear, or focused more on filling out forms than having meaningful discussions with employees can dramatically erode morale and lead to cynicism about the employer’s commitment to employee development. 


Communicate expectations:       Clear goals, mutually created by supervisors and employees, or more formal performance improvement plans, should be included in evaluations, and acknowledged by the employee. These can be used as indicia against which to assess the employee’s performance and track progress the next year. However, evaluations should not make any representations regarding continued employment or advancement that could be used as the basis for a contractual claim by an employee. Remember the acronym S-M-A-R-T, which stands for specific, measurable, achievable (or actionable), realistic, and time-bound, to guide the creation of effective expectations.


Provide a defense:   Accurate evaluations demonstrating a progressive effort to improve employee performance can be an essential component of an employer’s defense to a discrimination, retaliation or other unlawful termination claim. In contrast, the absence of evaluations; inaccurate or white-washed evaluations; or, inappropriate comments in an evaluation can be used to support an employee claim. Employers should use the “what not who” test. Evaluation comments should be related to what an employee does, not who s/he is. Evaluations must be free of comments related to an individual’s protected classification, need for accommodation of a disability or religious belief, caregiving responsibilities, stereotypes, or other potentially improper areas.   Those employees conducting evaluations should receive guidance and training to make sure they prepare evaluations properly.  


Open communication:   Employers may avoid employee claims all together if employees have open lines of communication with management. Evaluations present an opportunity to solicit information from employees about their work environment that can help an employer address problems before they lead to formal or external complaints.


What can an employer do to meet these goals?


 ∙           Implement an evaluation policy that provides for a regular process for review

∙           Develop an evaluation which is tailored to the employer’s needs – cookie-cutter forms will not result in useful feedback.

∙           Use job descriptions when conducting reviews to assess performance and develop goals.

∙           Conduct reviews from the top down – higher level managers should not expect their reports to evaluate subordinates if they are not evaluated.

 ∙           Train those conducting reviews how to provide constructive feedback and to communicate reviews effectively

∙           Ensure that evaluations are free of discriminatory or improper comments unrelated to performance.


Performance evaluations provide a powerful opportunity to allow employees to understand what is expected of them, how they are doing, and how they can improve. At the same time, they enable employers to manage their talent effectively and to create a climate that fosters open communication and mutual respect. Employers should stay focused on these simple objectives, ensure that documents and conversations are well-grounded in fact, and engage employees in the process to ensure success.