When strong employee evaluations are justified

If your employee performance ratings don't fit a bell curve, don't start a fight with your boss -- open up the conversation

Dear Bob ...

I have a question about employee evaluations.

[ Also on InfoWorld: There's more than one form of employer-employee dialogue, and Bob tells you how to make sense of a feedback-free performance review. | Keep up on career advice with Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter. ]

My previous boss retired a few months ago, and I have a new boss now. His arrival more or less coincided with our annual performance evaluations. I have several direct reports (a small department in a larger IT organization), and I gave them all reviews that rated most items "excellent" with a few "meets expectations." I did not give anyone a "needs improvement."

Off the Record submissions

It was pointed out to me that my ratings were kind of skewed and did not fit a bell curve at all. My response to this is that I think that kind of skewed result is to be expected under the circumstances. Here's why.

If this were a random sample of IT workers, I might also expect to see a bell curve, but this is not a random sample. My former boss and I have been shaping this department for many years. We had weak performers in the past, and they either improved to meet our expectations or we helped them find other opportunities.

The employees I have now have all been here for many years. They all get regular training in new advancements in their areas, and I discuss my expectations on at least a weekly (not annual) basis. I believe we have an excellent group of people now and having to find areas in which some of them "need improvement" seems artificial to me.

I'd be very interested in hearing whether or not you think I am off base in my thinking.

- Offering praise where praise is due

Dear Burnt When Offering ...

This sounds like a case where you should have a more in-depth discussion with your new manager about what "excellent," "meets expectations," and "needs improvement" mean.

Your position is perfectly reasonable: Everyone who didn't at least meet expectations is long gone, explaining the absence of a bell curve in your assessments. However, your new boss might be taking a different approach, one in which one of your responsibilities is to continually raise the bar with respect to expected performance. It's also quite reasonable.

My own opinion: It makes sense to raise the bar up to the point of diminishing returns but not beyond it. It's possible your staff is capable of more than you think. It's also possible you've groomed your team to the point that they're truly among the industry's best.

It's healthy to insist on excellence. It isn't healthy to create an environment in which "excellent" is defined in such a way that employees can't achieve it.

Among the challenges of a discussion like this is that even if there were industry benchmarks you could use to assess employees, the benchmarks would almost certainly be as irrelevant as most other benchmarks. Every situation has unique nuances that affect employee performance; your does too and it's unlikely any industry benchmark would take them into account.

You're left with a judgment call all the way around -- which is why you need to have an open, nondefensive discussion with your new boss about what it all means. If nothing else, the two of you should agree that every employee, no matter how good, should have a development plan -- not to fix what's wrong, but to identify how the employee can get even better, and even more important, what the employee needs to do to get to the next step in his/her career.

But whatever you do, don't argue. All that would do is to entrench both of you in your opposing positions, when what you need to do right now is to build rapport with your new manager. Instead, lay out the situation as you see it, ask for guidance in how to handle it, and be open to the guidance you get.

- Bob

This story, "When strong employee evalutions are justified," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com.