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Career Counselor


Dear Career Counselor:

Once again I'm dreading evaluating my staff and giving them their annual performance review — and I'm worried about handling my own review with my boss. What should I focus on when giving or receiving a review? I want to let my staff know what they've done well and what they need to work on without causing emotional upheaval (which I've experienced in the past). And how do I respond to my boss, who tends to be critical rather than balanced in my review? I'd like to get the new year off to a good start for all of us.

— Dreading the Annual Review

Dear Dreading the Annual Review:

You have sweaty palms, an increased heart rate, and an impending sense of dread — which means it must be time for the annual ritual known as performance evaluations. Annual evaluations and reviews have got to be one of the most stressful events any of us go through. Still, we know how necessary they are in keeping a department running smoothly and cooperatively from one year to the next. So how do you get there, both as a manager and a direct report? Luckily, there's lots of good advice on this issue, so you can choose what will work best in your specific situation. Most important is remembering that assessment should be objective and fair to the person giving it and the person receiving it. Stepping over that line is how you get into the smoldering resentment or even meltdowns and explosions you justifiably dread. Done properly, evaluations are a powerful way to plan out future professional growth while addressing weaknesses that might be hindering advancement or success in the job, whether for your employees or for you.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when doing your employees' reviews:

  • Begin each review by looking over last year's goals. This is the best, most objective way to evaluate someone's performance: did the employee meet those goals? Exceed them? Or fall short?
  • Evaluate each person on their full year's performance and the entire range of their strengths and weaknesses. While recent events are easy to remember, it is called an annual review to encourage you to cover the entire year. Also, beware the tendency to focus on things where an employee's performance is outstanding — provide guidance on all areas, including those where you see (measurable) room for improvement.
  • The content of the annual review shouldn't be a surprise. If you're having performance issues with an employee, you should be addressing the issues as they occur. By the time you and your employee sit down for the annual review, you should both know what to expect. That said, it's an excellent opportunity to formally talk about the issues you've been discussing all year, particularly whether there's been progress (or not!) in any of the critical areas. This is not the right time to spring any surprises on your staff, especially negative critiques of their performance.
  • Performance reviews should be written in as objective and factual a tone as possible. Provide specific examples, both good and bad. Don't shy away from the bad stuff, but don't dwell solely on it either. There's always the temptation to tell people what they want to hear, but you do a disservice both to the employee and to your institution if you give a poor performer a good review. The employee deserves a chance to correct poor performance and direct guidance on how to do it. Those steps should be covered in the review.
  • The performance review should be tied as closely as possible to the employee's job description. Many organizations use the performance review process as an opportunity to review and revise job descriptions; if it's available, don't miss this opportunity. A well-written job description serves as a clear guide both for you and for the employee, just like a good contract between a vendor and customer.
  • Even if it isn't part of your organization's performance review process, encourage your employees to write an annual activity report and/or self-evaluation. This gives the employee the opportunity to reflect on the year, and it will give you insight as to how the employee sees the situation, which might surprise you. (And write one yourself! Even if your boss doesn't read it, it's a very useful exercise to remind yourself of your own career progress.)
  • The performance review is also the best time to review last year's goals while setting the next year's goals, especially if they change. Be sure to use SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based. That will make them both clearer for the employee and easier for you when evaluating that person's progress.
  • Use the performance review to look forward and talk about the employee's longer-term career goals. Give the employee an opportunity to think about professional goals for the next one, two, or five years, and then use the time to talk about steps needed to get there. Ask what you could be doing more of or less of to help their progress toward meeting those goals.
  • Provide your written review to the employee a day or two in advance, so that she or he can review it and think about it before meeting with you. That way you can have a more meaningful, productive conversation. Expecting your staff to react on the spot, especially to a critique of their performance, can generate defensiveness and anxiety. Neither is productive in a conversation covering past and expected job performance.
  • Finally, remember that the annual performance review is a snapshot of an employee's performance, a point-in-time measurement of what is working and what is not. This is your chance to learn how to better support your employee in meeting established goals and reaching professional aspirations. The conversation should definitely be a dialogue between you — if you hear yourself doing all the talking, stop and ask a question about the employee's view of the issue you've raised. Again, you might be surprised and come away with information useful for your management of that person.

A few resources might prove useful in giving personnel evaluations to IT staff in higher education:

  • Pepperdine University Information Technology (IT) uses a competency-based set of career ladders to guide hiring, evaluation, retention, and promotion.
  • Anne Scrivener Agee, "The Four Pillars: A Framework for Improving IT Management," EDUCAUSE Quarterly, Volume 28, Number 4 (2005), presents a framework of competencies expected of managers to help the IT organization in its role of change agent on campus.
  • Bart Perkins, "What Suppliers Can Tell You About Your Own Business," Computerworld, May 9, 2011, is an opinion piece posted in the Management and Careers section. Although Perkins is talking about commercial businesses, his brief advice on using a 360-degree evaluation that includes your suppliers is helpful, as is his recommendation to consult them on emerging technology trends. Any end customers of your staff could provide valuable feedback, including students, faculty, and other staff.
  • Ten Tips for Conducting Employee Performance Reviews, Dun & Bradstreet, provides a quick, short reference list of good advice for performance evaluations, concluding: "The sign of a successful performance review is an employee who leaves the meeting feeling motivated and excited about his or her job."
  • How to Conduct Employee Evaluations, by attorney Amy DelPo of NOLO, sketches out how to give an employee meaningful feedback without creating legal problems. See also the additional resources at the end of the column.
  • Scott Robinson explains how to improve performance reviews with these tips from Tech Republic (December 2, 2002).

When it comes to your personal review with your boss — relax and recognize that this is a time for you to show how valuable you are to the institution. However, do not go into the review expecting your manager to lay out everything for you. Instead, have a list of things you want to talk about, anticipate what specific aspects of your job will be a topic of conversation, and prepare answers to any potentially tough questions you think may come your way. But be confident about the things you have done, and be able to explain why and how you did them.

Here are a few more tips to help you out:

  • Write your own activity report, and provide it to your boss in advance. As with the performance reviews you write for your employees, keep it factual and straightforward, but don't shy away from issues that concern you.
  • Think about your ability to accept constructive criticism. Most of us get defensive instinctively, but that isn't helpful in a performance review situation. Instead, try to consciously think about keeping an open mind. You don't have to agree with criticism you receive, but don't write it off out of hand — you report to this person. Think about the point made, challenge it (politely) if you think it's unfair or inaccurate, and try not to be defensive. Then ask for suggestions on how you can address the issue to your boss's satisfaction. You might find out that minor adjustments will solve the problem or that recommended training will help you understand and overcome the problem raised.
  • Think of ways your boss can be more effective in helping you fulfill your duties, whether through better communication or a reallocation of resources. Be ready to explain how these changes would enable you and your department to be more successful. Ask what your boss sees as the most important responsibilities for your group. If the answer is a surprise, plan to discuss departmental goals in more detail, perhaps in a separate meeting, to find out why your vision and your boss's vision diverge — and why you didn't know about it sooner.
  • Know your career goals. Do you want to be in a position of greater responsibility in the future? Think about your career path and where you want it to go. This will allow you to be very specific about your ambitions when brought up during your review. If your boss doesn't bring it up, you should. You want to make a partner of your manager in meeting your career goals.
  • Discuss last year's biggest challenges. You will want to demonstrate that you're aware of the obstacles you encountered, so be prepared to discuss how you overcame them and how they can be dealt with in the future. If any remain, explain how you plan to tackle them and on what schedule. If you need additional help to succeed, ask for it — and support your request with data. With limited resources, no manager will react well to an unjustified request from your department. Find the data you need and make that justification!
  • Give your boss feedback on the institutional work environment. Taking a broader view shows that you're aware of the business and your role in it. If you have ideas on how you can contribute more directly to the organization's success, suggest them and consider adding them to your goals for the coming year if your boss agrees. This "bigger thinking" approach supports your desire for career growth and shows you consider the institution's success part of your responsibility.
  • Praise your boss — but only if you genuinely admire something job-specific about him or her. If you feel your boss has really helped you accomplish your goals over the year, or made your job easier, say so. Tell your boss why that behavior or action helped you become more productive and exactly how and why you appreciate it. After all, if you encourage a repeat of that positive behavior, you benefit. Remember, even when you're the one being evaluated, the conversation should be a productive dialogue. Positive reinforcement does work if sincere and effectively presented. This advice goes both ways — remember to use it with your own staff, and pay attention when your boss uses similar language in your review.
  • Ask questions. This shows that you are engaged and interested in getting better, and also helps you get clarification on things you're unsure about, have a better idea of what your boss expects of you, and avoid misunderstandings. You want to leave the evaluation confident that you both have the same understanding of your performance for the past year and your goals for the coming year. In particular, if you have stated that you want to add a new goal, make sure the two of you agree what that will take and how much support and advice you want and can expect from your boss. If necessary, agree that you will return with a business plan for the new goal and set a meeting to discuss it later. Will the new goal contribute to your immediate job performance, career plans, and the organization's (or institution's) success? If not, don't argue — look for other ways to prove your value.
  • When the evaluation concludes, thank your boss for taking the time to go through your past performance with you (especially if you asked a lot of questions) and assure her or him that you look forward to continued improvement and success in the year ahead. Even if you feel somewhat battered by the way an overly critical boss delivered your review, remember your own goals and plans and look ahead, not back. With (or without) your boss's help, you can strive to meet goals that move you ahead. Decide to have a positive attitude about your professional possibilities, and you'll find that doubters won't slow your success. It's your career — take charge!

There are numerous resources available to help you find more tips and gain more skills if you decide you need them. Issues of EDUCAUSE Quarterly are full of some of the latest trends in technology, for example, and may give you some insight into areas that your organization and you personally should be moving towards. Or you can look for resources in the EDUCAUSE library on emerging technologies. Make sure, though, that you don't focus on the wrong things — strategic knowledge is likelier to take you where you want to go, whereas adding more technical skills to your portfolio might hinder your advancement. Balance the two to meet your personal goals.

One final tip: while you may have multiple reviews to do, for each of your employees it is a critical, one-time-only exercise. Try not to schedule those reviews back-to-back, or you will quickly burn out and fail to provide the appropriate energy and focus your employees deserve. Even if you can keep your energy up, your direct report, who will probably be nervous anyhow, might feel it's something you want to get done quickly. That person should receive your full attention and commitment during the evaluation and leave the review feeling energized, hopeful, and determined.

While dreaded, annual performance reviews can provide everyone with some much needed time to stop and review what has happened over the past year and where the organization is heading in the next year or so. Give yourself adequate time to complete the evaluations and review them with your employees, and you should see benefits in the coming year. Likewise, stay calm and focused in your own performance review so that you can face the near future with confidence in your own future success.

With annual performance reviews behind you, have a very Happy New Year!

Do you have a question for the Career Counselor? Please send your questions to careercounselor@educause.edu. (Your identity will be kept strictly confidential.)

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