Administration and Leadership, Columns

Reconsider the Importance of Employee Evaluation Forms

Issue 10 and Volume 38.

Early in my career, the City of St. Louis used employee appraisal or evaluation forms to assess my abilities as an employee. Filling out the different categories and criteria on these forms would be an annual event. The evaluator, usually my captain, would give me a score from 1–5, with 5 being the highest.

As an example, one criterion would be “Handles multiple tasks simultaneously, prioritizing and completing assignments within established deadlines with not more than 3–5 exceptions.” What? I’m a paramedic! I guess this part of the evaluation judges whether I can intubate with one hand, put pressure on an arterial bleed with my other hand, and turn on the oxygen with my foot.

One of my other favorites was “Expresses thoughts and ideas verbally” and “Expresses thoughts and ideas in written form.” What does this mean when you work in the emergency business? I soon learned the City of St. Louis used the same evaluation form for every city employee regardless if you were a firefighter, paramedic or a trash truck driver. It made no sense.

Depending on whoever my captain was, I’d either have an objective evaluation with the scoring system used to give me constructive assessment or I’d just be given 3s all the way down the line to avoid conflict. I thought this type of evaluator was either lazy or providing a lesson in exercising futility.

When I was given 1s, 2s or 3s in different categories, it would always end up in a debate. I thought I was much better than that! How could they effectively evaluate me? They weren’t on every call with me. It wasn’t like I was sitting in an office eight hours a day where they could observe my performance and monitor the amount of work I was producing. In reality, I got very little constructive feedback from my annual employee evaluation form. It was never used for consideration in promotions or pay raises. It was always filed in a drawer after I signed it—for all I know, they’re still in that drawer some 35 years later.

When I got promoted later in my career, I had to fill out the same forms for my employees. Many times I thought it was ridiculous to put a subjective, numeric value on someone’s work performance. I finally came to the conclusion that these appraisal forms did no good and were a waste of time and energy for everyone involved. I also decided that if I only gave my employees feedback once a year, I would be a pretty bad supervisor. I almost felt this must be what Judgment Day is like—everything you’ve done is reviewed at once and you’re told whether you were bad or good throughout your life.

So as a newly promoted captain, I instead chose to give feedback and thoughts to my employees after every call. Nothing had to be formal. Sitting around the kitchen table and just bringing it up in conversation sufficed many times. Sometimes I had sage advice, sometimes I had praise and other times I became the student when I learned why the employee did a certain procedure or action. As an unintended consequence, when the proverbial year-end annual rating was due, any number I put down for my employees had a little bit more meaning since we had talked about it sometime during the course of the year. And in some cases, somebody who had been a 2 or 3 in a certain category at the beginning of the year became a 4 or 5 by the end of it, all due to our chats at the kitchen table about everything from our kids to the call in question.

I’m sure this column can be controversial for managers who believe in the yearly employee appraisal form, but my experience has been that it provides nothing concrete to the organization like it did when there was a top-down organizational approach years ago, and the form was used to help management weed out the weak and non-performers, and identify those who could move up in the organization.

I once heard a good analogy of the employee appraisal form. Imagine if your spouse were to give you an annual performance review—would it be awkward and uncomfortable? Harbor some resentment later? Then why would a supervisor and employee review be any different?

Before you take my advice and throw those dreaded employee appraisal forms in the trash, make sure you have a system in place that continuously provides feedback to the employee on their performance and allows them to grow both from constructive criticism and positive feedback.