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  • Writer's pictureGigi Fergus, MBA, BSN, RN

Evaluating Your Evaluations - Are You Fair and Equitable?

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

(Although my experience is healthcare based, the concepts presented are applicable to all industries.)

A fair and equitable performance evaluation maintains the integrity of organizational culture.

When issues arise with a staff member and the manager or director wants to move forward with an administrative action, the

first step is to pull the employee’s HR file.

It is not uncommon for the accompanying conversation from the manager to include comments that the employee is difficult or has had previous issues. Frequently though, the HR file does not reflect what the manager has had to say about the employee. More often than not, there are no “write-ups”, no notes regarding conversations, or previous disciplinary actions despite voiced concerns by managers and directors. It is almost impossible to advance an employee along the administrative action path without demonstrating a pattern of behavior unless the action is so egregious it rises to the level of negligence or patient endangerment.

Once the documentation is reviewed, the next piece of information that is to be reviewed is the employee’s past 3 evaluations (if available). Evaluations – or performance appraisals – are intended to be a tool for feedback, a dual mechanism that is both instructional (forward looking) and reflective (appraisal of past performance). If there have been previous concerns and issues, they should be spelled out in the evaluation with recommendations for remediation.

Typically, if there is little documentation in the HR file, the evaluation also reflects a golden employee. In fact, it is not unusual for the “problem” employee to look like a saint, the epitome of all that is right and good in the department on their annual evaluation. How can this be?

As we explored in my last article, “I’m not your friend, l’m your boss”, it is very difficult for managers to hold their staff accountable. It appears that it is even more difficult to give them a fair and equitable evaluation. A good evaluation is honest and does not overrate the employee. Use of Likert scales has shifted performance appraisals from pass/fail to a gradient approach with bonuses and merit raises attached to decimal points. Over time with the same manager, insidious overrating-creep becomes pervasive throughout the department. When the manager tries to hold the employee accountable, they can expect to hear, “I’m a great employee! I was rated very highly on my evaluations. How dare you imply that I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be!”

The following are suggestions on how to give a fair and equitable evaluation to your staff to avoid overrating:

1) Always state supporting information for any score above or below the median. If the scale is 1 to 5, the assumption is that a 3 is doing the job. If you give a 4 to someone, be able to give a specific example of how they went above and beyond in their job requirements. The same goes for giving a 2.

2) Before you give a 4 or 5 to someone on an individual metric, ask yourself, “Who in this department is the exemplar? How does this employee compare to the exemplar for the stated behavior? Is there work product for this item above and beyond the requirements or are they simply doing their job?” If their actions are not extraordinary, you might want to rethink giving them an inflated appraisal.

3) Performance appraisals should not be a surprise to the employee. There should have been conversations and documentation throughout the year that reflect lapses in performance. Notes to file may be made whether electronic or handwritten and should include a recap of the conversation, the employee’s response, and the examples given to the employee of actions that could be taken to correct the problem or address the issue. As time is of the essence, some managers may find it more expedient to email themselves with the details of the conversation with the word confidential in the subject line. The email is time/date stamped and provides an indelible record of the interaction.

4) Do you use a positive or a negative component of the employee’s performance repeatedly in their evaluation? If the employee does something good (chairs a committee, creates an in-service, etc. – something above work requirements), the tendency is to give them credit for the activity on multiple metrics. For example, if the employee chairs a committee, the manager could give them credit under professionalism, teamwork, putting patients first, etc. However, if the manager can use the good things over and over, they are also allowed to use the bad things repeatedly, too. A medication error can be used against an employee under the headings of patient safety, professionalism, poor outcomes, quality metrics, etc. It is safe to say that no one wants the negatives to be used over and over again against them. Therefore, the good things cannot be used repeatedly either. This is called the One Time Use Rule. Whether good or bad, note the issue under the most appropriate heading and cite specifics including date and time. Do not re-use this issue again in the evaluation. Use good things more than once demonstrates overrating. Use the bad things more than once demonstrates hyper-punitive motives. Use this rule for every employee.

5) All evaluations should be reviewed comprehensively and comparatively. How do the evals compare to each other? Did you hold the same values for each employee? Did you hold all employees to the same standards on each metric? The easiest way to visualize and compare evaluation results for a department is to plot them in a graph. Scatter plots offer a quick visual of the results for the group. Note all outliers, groupings, and trends in the scatter plot. Are 95% of the results clustered together? If so, overrating may be present. Are the group’s totals consistent with department results? If patient experience scores are poor for the department yet the scores are relatively high, there is an alignment issue. Alignment is the responsibility of the manager.

6) Lastly, all evaluations should be reviewed with a higher authority to ensure level setting across the facility. The higher authority may be your supervisor, VP, or HR Professional. There should be no perceived benefit or repercussion for working for one manager over another. The overall ratings of all departments should reflect the overall ratings of the facility. If the entire facility ranks highly on evaluations yet the scores on overall rating and would you recommend on the HCAHPS (patient experience scores) are low, there is a substantial disconnect.

Most employees come to work with the intention of doing their very best every day. Offering suggestions for improvement and holding employees accountable to the standards set by the facility provides a path for professional development, maintains cultural integrity, and dispels questions of fairness. Check your facility’s policies on administrative documentation and always use HR as your starting point.

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