Employee Evaluations

(The following is based on a presentation I made to the Park Avenue Connections networking group.)

            Dick Cavett once asked Jerry Lewis about critics.  Not including his shtick, he basically said, and this is not an exact quote, but it’s close enough, “People who do, do; people who can’t, teach; people who can’t do either become critics.”  Then he was asked about his reaction to the critiques of the critics.

            (Again, not an exact quote, but close enough.)  “There are two types of critics.  There are those who care nothing about the art or the industry and know little or nothing about them.  Their critiques can be ignored.  But then there are those critics who not only know about the art and the industry, but care about them.  Even if you do not agree with them, even if you don’t like them, you ignore them at your peril.”  In other words, you listen to them because you respect them.

            Employee evaluations are critiques.  They can be positive.  They can also be negative.  If someone responds to one of my books or articles or posts negatively, it means nothing.  If someone responds positively, it also means nothing.  That is, the critiques, positive or negative, mean nothing unless the critic explains why they like or dislike my work.  If you can’t learn from the criticism, it’s meaningless.

            Regardless of whether it is positive or negative, you have to be open to the criticism to hear it.  If you are not willing to listen to the critic, with either your eyes or ears, it’s your loss, it’s your fault.  But it is not meaningless.  If you are not willing to listen to criticism, you won’t know you have a problem.  In that case, ignorance is most definitely not bliss. 

            This was the reason, or the logic, behind the 360-degree evaluation.  As this presentation is focused on employee evaluations, I will touch on this only briefly.

            Basically, someone had the epiphany that supervisors, not just supervisees, needed to be evaluated.  Everyone can benefit from honest feedback.  For reasons I am about to touch upon, these evaluations have fallen out of favor because supervisors were not able to get honest feedback from their supervisees.  It’s a pity.

            When I read about 360-degree evaluations, I liked the idea.  I knew I could not go to my supervisor who I neither liked, nor trusted, nor respected.  But I did have colleagues who I liked, trusted, and respected and I asked them for feedback.  I was shocked but what I heard.  They all said the same thing.  After paying me compliments, they basically said that I was a rash decision maker.  I thanked them, and then called a friend to discuss the criticism.  He knew me well.  He knew that my decision making with not rash, it was fast.  He also knew my process.  He immediately focused in on the problem.  “Do you,” he asked me, “explain your decision or just announce it?”

            Spot on, as the British would say.  So the very next day, when I had a decision to make, I did what I always did: I asked for input from my colleagues.  The only difference was, this time, I immediately explained why I liked or disliked, accepted or rejected, their suggestions.  They all felt that they had been heard.  They all came to me separately and commended me, in fact they thanked me, for having taken their criticism to heart. 

            The truth of the matter was, it took me no longer to make that decision than it had past decisions.  Only now my colleagues felt that they were included in the process and I had listened to them.   That’s the benefit of 360 evaluations and it is a shame that they have fallen out of favor, but I understand why.

            This brings me to the first problem with employee evaluations.  Some employees have no idea how to respond to criticism.  They immediately shut down.  They have no experience with it.  Liberals in universities are taught to be overly sensitive and to, first and foremost, care about a person’s feelings.  They should not be offended.  Problem is, they believe that anything said against someone is to be avoided.  They walk on eggshells.  It happened to me.  I was once criticized by my supervisor at a university where I worked for a very short time, because I mentioned God in a presentation to students on networking.  I said, as many have before me, “God gave us two ears and one mouth.  He was sending a message: Listen twice as much as you speak.”  I was chastised (in writing!) for possibly offending atheists!  The substance of what I said wasn’t a problem, it was invoking God which was, if you will pardon the expression, my sin.

            Then there are the conservatives.  They are taught at universities to keep quiet.  Say nothing.  You’ll get into trouble.  They are there for the framed piece of paper.  Once they get it, they’ll be free to speak their minds.  Problem is, after four years at university, they don’t know how to speak their minds.

            And since neither knows how to give criticism, they also don’t know how to accept it.  (I know this from my career counseling clients and, even in a couple of cases, from employers!)  Thankfully, I do not have this problem because I had great professors who never held back.  They would cut my work to shreds.  The result: Both my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation were published by leading academic publishers, virtually without any changes, not because I was brilliant, but because my professors taught me how to accept criticism.  I listened.  I asked for explanations.  I didn’t argue.  Their remarks were substantive.  I did what they told me.  That’s also why I have been published in many peer-reviewed publications including the American Journal of International Law, the Israel Law Review,the Jerusalem Journal of International Relations, and the Netherlands International Law Review, to name but a few.  The editors told me what they wanted and what I had to change.  I listened and they accepted my revised articles and reviews.  It was the same with newspaper editors, be they at The Jerusalem Post or The Toronto Star.  I learned how to write works worthy of publication because I learned how to listen to my critics.

            But there is something else all college graduates have in common.  In fact, from Millennials on down, they all have this in common and it results in a lack of understanding about all aspects of criticism.  I call it “The Armor of Anonymity.”  (Consider that copyrighted!)  On social media, people can say whatever they want about someone.  They don’t have to use their real names.  Except on LinkedIn, I am willing to bet that the vast majority of social media accounts have fictious names.  Some people use their first name and last initial.  That’s anonymous.  Some people use their first initial and last name.  That’s anonymous.  Some people use a pet name or a nickname.  That’s anonymous.  And, to be clear, anonymous critiques are meaningless, not worth reading and not worth a response. 

Well, if you learn on social media that you can say anything you want without being held accountable, you are not going to learn anything positive about how to offer or accept criticism.

            (Of course, there are exceptions to the rule.  I don’t remember the names; they are not important.  During President Trump’s first address to Congress, he pointed out a widow of a soldier who had been killed in battle and was his invited guest.  He praised her sacrifice.  The entire Congress of the United States literally stood and applauded her and her family’s sacrifice as should stood and wept in the gallery.  One person did not share their feelings.  He criticized the woman, if I remember correctly, on Twitter.  His Twitter account was under his real name.  Someone looked him up on LinkedIn.  They found his employer.  They asked the employer for their thoughts on the tweet.  He was immediately fired.  Thus, the Armor of Anonymity.)

            The key to a successful critique, or employee evaluation, is respect.  (There’s that word again!)  If the critic is not respected by the target of the criticism, the critique will serve no purpose.  If your supervisees don’t respect you, they won’t care what you have to say.   (This is something else I learned in university.  When doing research, the most important rule is, consider the source!)  They will go through the motions.  They will say all the right things.  But your words will go in one ear and out the other.  They will learn nothing.  They will not change.  So, the first step in a successful evaluation is for the evaluator, the supervisor, to earn the respect of those they evaluate.

            How do you earn a supervisee’s respect?  Don’t be a hypocrite.  “Do what I say, not what I do,” is the road from respect, not to respect.  You must be respectful of everyone.  You must keep your personal life out of the workplace.  Never embarrass a colleague.  Never gossip.  You must work as hard, if not harder, than everyone else.  Never ask someone to do anything you would not do yourself.  Respect is earned, it is never given

            The road to respect is not paved only with don’ts.  There are a few very important dos as well.  First, you have to be moral and ethical.  People notice the little things.  It was around this time of year at one company, after Thanksgiving, that directors, who were responsible for choosing vendors, started to get gifts.  Those who kept them to themselves, for themselves, were noticed.  Those who did not, those who shared, those who turned the gifts into prizes for holiday parties, were also noticed.  Employees notice everything supervisors, bosses and owners do.   Never forget that.

            Most importantly, as a supervisor, you must show appreciation.  This brings me to the evaluation process.

            A gentleman came to me for career counseling.  He felt totally unappreciated.  He had a long list of successes and, after each one…nothing.  No one commended him.  He never received a literal or figurative pat on the back.  He had a great résumé.  He was a consummate professional. He was highly articulate.  It only took him a few weeks to get a job offer.  He was thrilled.

            I helped him write a positive resignation letter and warned him that it is never a good idea to accept a counteroffer. 

            When he resigned he was shocked by the reaction.  His supervisor wanted to know why.  His supervisor’s supervisor wanted to know why.  The owner of the company wanted to know why.  He said what was not included in the letter, “I am unappreciated.  No one has ever commended me for anything I have done.  Why would I stay where I am unappreciated?”

            They begged.  They pleaded.  He refused to remain. 

            Employees need to know that they are doing their job well.  Equally important is that they should know if they are doing poorly.  Which brings me to the story of my first annual review.

            I had worked for a number of companies.  I don’t remember ever having to sign off on a personnel handbook or policy statement.  And I know I never had an annual review prior to joining this new company.  I was always praised or (negatively) criticized on the spot.  So when I was told I was going to have an annual review with my new employer, I had no idea what to expect.

            My boss told me that she would review with me my job description responsibilities.  I would get a score of 1, 2 or 3.  One meant everything was great; 2 meant that there was room for improvement; and 3 meant there was a serious problem.  According to the rules she could not give me all ones.  So I got two 2s.  Then she told me I needed to comment on the review and sign it.

            I totally misunderstood.  On what was I to comment?  I got the highest score possible.  Was I going to complain?  So I asked her if I could take the evaluation home, think about it, and return it the next day.  She had a very confused look on her faced, handed it to me, and we parted company.

            She had asked me to comment on the review.  Since I could not very well write, “I agree.  I am as close to perfect as possible.” I chose to comment on the process.  After all, she asked me to comment.

            I wrote something like this: “I feel the review process is flawed.  If I have done well, I should not hear about it on my annual review.  Everyone likes a pat on the back.  If I have done poorly, I certainly don’t want to hear about it on my annual review.  I want to hear about it immediately so I can rectify the situation and will not repeat the error.  I should, in both cases, receive immediate feedback.  But what I really do not like is that the review is based solely on my job description.  I have been here a year.  I do much more than what is on the job description.  I have expanded it.  I have grown.  My department has grown.  The review does not take any of that into account.  That means that you do not want to encourage growth and, therefore, you are encouraging stagnation.  No company that stagnates survives.  I feel the review should go beyond the job description.  It should be a given that employees are doing what they were hired to do and are doing it well.  It’s the extras that they do that need to be the focus of the review.”

            (For the record, my definition of failure is if when someone leaves a job, and their replacement gets the same job description they received when they first applied for the position, they failed because they did not grow.)

            In any event, getting back to my critique of the evaluation process, boy did I get in trouble (a little).  My boss showed it to her boss, our CEO, who shared it with the HR director.  He was furious.  The CEO wanted to discuss my comments.  My boss was there and so was the HR director.  He was adamantly opposed to any changes in the process.  As we were discussing my comments, the chairman of the Board dropped by.  He asked what was going on.  The CEO handed him my comments.  We had a good relationship.  We would always kid each other.  I’d tease him about his Irish heritage and the fact that on St. Patrick’s Day he wore orange (!) and he’d tease me about being Canadian and cheering for the Blue Jays.  After he read what I wrote he said, “The Canuck is right.”  Never argue with an Irishman who wears orange on St. Patty’s Day!

            (Just as an aside, HR refused to change the review process.  The HR director was gone within the year for reasons unknown…)

            So for a proper evaluation you need respect (which should mean that you will be listened to, a skill you might just have to teach!), to provide immediate feedback, and to see that the employee is growing on the job so that the company can grow with them.  And, just to be on the safe side, that evaluation or review process should be clearly outlined in the employee handbook.   That way the employee will be prepared, will know the process in advance, and will understand the company’s expectations.  And, since the evaluation will focus on professional development, it will be clear to the employee that if they are found lacking in some area, it will be the company’s responsibility to provide the necessary training to eliminate the deficiency.  This will not only help to make the company better but, as importantly, it will improve the hiring process as a key demand of all top-tier candidates is professional development.  Not only that, but employee turnover should drop which will also help with hirings as the turnover rate is the only real proof if a company is truly a good place to work or not.

AFTERWORD TO INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY ATTORNEYS: I know my error. I should not have “The Armor of Anonymity” copyrighted, I should have it trademarked. So sue me!