When Suzanne Benoit, Senior Professional in Human Resources SPHR, joined Wright-Ryan Construction, Inc. as its Director of Human Resources, she learned that her employer had been using an annual performance review process that wasn’t yielding the results it wanted. With encouragement from the president, the support of other company leaders, and a strong, technically-proficient staff, she created a new process designed to improve performance, accountability, and employee engagement.
JATHAN JANOVE: What led you to conclude that the existing performance review program needed calibration?
SUZANNE BENOIT: Although it was set up for the anniversary of each employee’s hire date, the company did not perform reviews consistently. The computer program was complicated and some managers avoided it. When reviews were done, the scores did not connect well with business results. Evaluations tended to be subjective. Managers were also evaluating twice: once for a base salary review and a second time for the Incentive Compensation (IC) program. The IC review was based upon subjective company values.
JJ: What did you do about it?
SB: We took the following steps:
- We began by identifying eight major areas of accountability that encompassed every position in the company.
- Next, we revised job descriptions to link each employee’s work to the eight accountability areas. The job descriptions became less about tasks and more about results—what you do.
- For continuity’s sake, we kept some of the features of the existing performance review such as a 1-to-5 numerical rating system. However, we simplified the process, approaching it from the perspective of a busy manager juggling performance reviews with other time-sensitive pressures. Instead of having to complete a complex, time-consuming form, the manager simply filled out a one-page document and assigned ratings in the eight accountability areas. In addition, we provided a short comment section allowing managers to include a narrative on an employee’s strengths, weaknesses, and goals.
- At the urging of our president, we created a self-evaluation form that also tracked the eight accountability areas. To keep the discussion positive and avoid friction between supervisors and employees on scoring, we did not ask employees to rate themselves numerically. Instead, we asked them to assess their own performance in each accountability area by selecting one of three descriptive boxes: 1) “needs improvement;” 2) “in development and progressing;” or 3) “something I’m doing well.” In addition, we asked them to identify projects that they had worked on, their major accomplishments, and anything they wished they had done better but had learned from. We asked for feedback about their supervisors, including what qualities they appreciated, and what their supervisors or the company might do differently to help them succeed. We also asked about their desires for future growth and development.
- For tracking and efficiency purposes, we did away with the hire-anniversary date and went with calendar year for all employees. We added a brief mid-year review where no rating is given, but in which a face-to-face discussion occurs regarding how the employee is doing with respect to the eight accountability areas and his or her annual goals.
- Finally, while focusing more on end results, we blended the two annual evaluations into one in order to save management time and provide clarity for employees.
JJ: Since implementing this approach, what have you observed?
SB: There is better communication between managers and employees. There is a better understanding of core company goals, the importance of obtaining results and, subjectively, it seems that teams are working better together. Our construction systems are being used more consistently. This relates directly to one of the eight accountabilities regarding efficient work approach. We had fewer project write-downs in 2013 and fewer customer complaints. Communication within and across groups has improved and supervisors seem more clear on the behavior we need as a company to be successful. Initially, I worried that employee self-evaluations might create adversarial relations with supervisors. Instead, it actually improved relations and produced an information gold mine. We’ve been able to use the information to improve management training and our processes and systems.
From an HR standpoint, our primary motivation for the new program wasn’t risk management. Yet the new process has created a much more consistent and reliable written record to support status-changing decisions. In addition, it has helped HR get early warnings, in turn making HR staff more effective in heading off trouble. Last, but not least, this process has reinforced that HR is a core part of the leadership team by demonstrating its value related to company success.
JJ: For executives or HR leaders who read this interview and want to experience similar change in their organizations, what do you recommend?
SB: I think most HR professionals know the components of good performance evaluations, but become frustrated by resistance. This resistance comes from the particular history of a company’s performance review system. I would advise them to go slow. Break the big task down into pieces and educate management about each piece. You can help them to see what is working, what isn’t working, and how changing things will help the company. If you move forward too fast with a system that’s technically valid but managers aren’t ready, the missteps may be too difficult to overcome. You can win managers over one step at a time and continue with a better chance of long-term success.
Suzanne Benoit, SPHR, is Director of Human Resources at Wright-Ryan Construction, Inc. and an independent consultant. You can find more of her tips on optimizing human resources strategies on her blog.
Jathan Janove, a former Ogletree Deakins shareholder and Director of Employee Engagement Solutions, is the Principal of Janove Organization Solutions (www.jathanjanove.com). Through consulting, executive coaching, and training, he helps organizations maximize the human potential within. He can be reached at email@example.com.