New wrinkles in performance reviews

Improving the employee evaluation process for efficiency and effectiveness

Whether from the management or employee perspective, the often-tedious performance review process is one that few look forward to completing. But positive change seems to be in the works within higher ed HR. 

“Some institutions are moving to improve or transform their performance appraisal systems,” says Andrea Averill, a senior consultant with consulting firm Segal. Such changes promise to transform what is often a bureaucratic and unpopular performance management program into an engaging performance development process.

Employee check-ins and working through change

Leaders at the University of California, Irvine have discontinued end-of-year performance evaluations. Now employees and managers complete brief “check-ins” online three times a year followed by informal in-person meetings. 

The sessions include feedback on goal progress along with a few performance feedback questions. The system was introduced in 2017 after two years of joint planning by HR leaders and a cross-campus workgroup, explains Dawn McKinley, senior director, enterprise total rewards & workforce planning. 

In researching the literature on performance management, the workgroup found a common theme: To stay competitive, organizations must move away from the “big performance evaluation event” at the end of the year and move toward more frequent, open, two-way dialog between employees and managers. 

“The research showed that by communicating more often but less formally, organizations were increasing performance engagement which was increasing organizational performance,” McKinley says.

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Feedback obtained through focus groups has been positive. McKinley says employees appreciate that regular check-ins focus on the future, compared to how end of year performance evaluations emphasized the past. They also like using an online system to complete the check-ins.

At the same time, the change has not come without challenges. “Employees and managers are now required to think and act differently when it comes to staff performance, and this will take some time to work through,” she says. Some employees have treated each check-in as a full-fledged performance evaluation, putting in more time and effort than HR leaders intended.  And some have found initial use of the online tool difficult. Such issues will be addressed through focus group analysis and follow-up. 

Tech tools

Higher ed institutions interested in digitizing performance tools or enacting other improvements to their evaluation process can get plenty of help from talent management solutions on the market. Performance management modules offer features such as easy access to goals and reviews, analysis of data to identify top-performing employees, and employee engagement surveys.

Evaluation efficiencies

A more common development is a move away from the use of paper forms. Digital alternatives have been around for some time, but continue to evolve. Newer features are designed to support performance development through frequent high-quality conversations, multisource feedback and calibration to help ease administrative burders, says Averill. 

At Pace University in New York, performance reviews are done via digitized forms and instructions. Its Performance Management and Development Process, implemented in 2018, includes goal setting, self-reviews by employees and reviews by managers, all completed online. The system features drop-down boxes where managers can choose from a menu of ratings for employees, as well as options for adding comments and saving drafts. 

The format fosters timely exchanges among employees, the managers evaluating them, administrators who approve assessments, and HR.  An electronic signature process eliminates delays that can occur when obtaining several signatures for a single paper document.

Digitizing the performance management processes can facilitate a much clearer alignment between employees, departmental goals and organizational strategies, Averill says. “It can also lead to a greater awareness by employees of the aspirational purpose inherent in higher education institutions.” 

Mark Rowh, a Virginia-based writer, is a frequent contributor to UB.

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