Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"How'm I doing?" - Performance Reviews

The three-term Mayor (1978-1989) of New York City, the late Ed Koch, was famous for, among other things, standing on street corners or in subway stations and asking whomever passed by:  "How'm I doing?" This question amounted to requesting a kind of  instantaneous, button-holing review of his performance as Mayor.  The verdicts were  positive enough to get him elected three times in a famously fractious city.

Reviewing an employee's performance is one of a nonprofit manager's or board members' most important, and for some, least favorite, personnel activities.  To ease the process over time various consultants have designed templates and charts around which an evaluation can be framed. Those formats help, but they shouldn't take the place of  a key outcome of such a meeting - a two way conversation.

I recall trying such a template that used a 1-10 scale to score the employee in  various categories - 10 being perfect. The employee was asked to self-evaluate. We exchanged our results. The employee had marked perfect 10s through out. I was less generous but not by any means negative overall. The meeting did not go well. Most of the remaining  time was spent bewailing (sometimes literally ) my scoring, the person claiming all perfect scores before. My rejoinder - that I myself have always found perfection elusive - was of no help.

I have used  a system that works more satisfactorily, especially for board leadership review of the CEO. It requires more work on the front end but the final result can be mutually beneficial.  At  the beginning of the fiscal year the employee  lists  a series of goals and objectives, which, in turn, is reviewed and approved by the evaluating party. The touchstones of the goals and objectives document  should be the employee's job description as well as the organization' s strategic plan - so it is imperative that the nonprofit have each - updated.

It is this list against which the employee's performance is judged. The value of such an  approach lies in the  avoidance of the LIFO effect. LIFO stands for "Last In, First Out," a term used in inventory management, which I learned about at business school in my brief encounter with manufacturing policy. With a LIFO evaluation, an employee is at risk of being reviewed  based on the most recent activities, and not the whole year. If , for  instance,  a problem arose a few weeks before the review, the evaluation could end up  unfairly skewed.

It is wise for both employee and reviewer to check in during the year to see if there might be changes to the goals and objectives, based on unforeseen events. I've always liked the phrase sometimes used in government - OBE'd- Overtaken By Events. It happens. Any  midcourse correction also encourages conversation between the parties. Evaluations ideally are two-way discussions. Employees should also use the opportunity to "feed back" any concerns on their minds..

The pressures of running a nonprofit can be severe, sometimes leading to a CEO disappearing into a  mental bunker, besieged by a myriad of demands from donors, staff, board and the public Likewise, if  board members are involved, their private and professional lives can also be complex. A carefully structured evaluation process will require emergence from whatever bunkers where those involved  might find themselves.

A performance evaluation should be viewed as a constructive exercise. And the employee shouldn't be afraid to ask, in Mayor Koch's phrase: " How'm I doing?"

Comments on this blog post, and others, always welcome.