How to Rate Employee Performance During a Pandemic

It’s time for the annual performance review. And although, as a practice manager, you may be tempted to check the box, “exceeded expectations” for simply surviving a global pandemic, that’s not helpful. In fact, there are ways to create value for both your employees and the practice. All that is demanded is that you (sigh) pivot once again.

The Overarching Challenge of This Particular Pivot

Prior to the pandemic, no doubt your performance review process was fairly straightforward. You identified the competencies, that is, the skills, knowledge and behaviors required to do a job. Then, you rated employees against that list. Once you and the employee reached agreement on areas to improve, you put a performance improvement plan in place.

Today, the process isn’t so straightforward. “[Managers] must figure out how to reward those employees who are ‘stepping up’ … without inadvertently penalizing those who have needed to ‘lean out,’” note sociologists Lori Nishiura Mackenzie, et al, Stanford University Graduate School, VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab, in Harvard Business Review (HBR).

The Underlying Challenge: Being Aware of Bias

Crisis situations put our snap judgments in high gear, often influenced by stereotypes, note Mackenzie, et al. For instance, a staff person is late for work, and that tardiness results in a snap judgment that she is not pulling her weight like the rest of the team. (Never mind that she has caregiving responsibilities as well.)

Additionally, the “ideal worker norm” has been upended, notes Mackenzie, et al. There is no longer a clear definition between work and home. It is hard to rate the performance of a remote worker. There is a tendency to default to old biases around “women as caregivers” and “men as workers.”

This is the bad news. The good news is that there are some simple ways to retool your performance review process.

Where to Start

It’s helpful to review the old criteria for an employee job, and then update it with new criteria. There are ways to update that criteria, writes Mackenzie, et al., noted and paraphrased below.

Step 1: Identify what’s important for the specific job. Review the competencies required for the current job and edit them based on what you’ve learned in the pandemic. For instance, is the ability to pivot or cross-train critical now?

Step 2: Define what success looks like specifically. This is where you get specific so you can measure behavior. For instance, “problem-solving” is too vague, but “brainstorming with the team to reach a solution” is.

Step 3: Look for underlying biases in the list you’ve created. Bias is implicit, that is, we aren’t usually aware of it. That’s why it’s helpful to look below the list you created. For instance, if some staff members were available 24/7 during Covid, is “going above and beyond” critical to the job or a (biased) preference?

Step 4: Rethink “visibility” as a sign of performance. During Covid, employers learned that “what you see is not always what you get.” The employee who misses a few meetings because of caregiving may be working late at night on other tasks that are just as valuable.

How Some Companies are Pivoting

Thanks to Covid, companies are trying different approaches to the annual performance review process, notes the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). Some of those are noted below, and paraphrased.

Pivot 1: Ditch the Traditional Performance Review

CHG Healthcare, a health-staffing agency, decided that rather than looking back at performance, they would adopt just-in-time feedback, and a “forward focus” on goals.

Pivot 2: Focus on Goals, Not How You Reached Them

The Texas Department of Transportation (TDOT) is shifting from process to end result. It has reworked its performance evaluation and reduced metrics. It is also initiating more one-on-one conversations.

Pivot 3: Focus on Communication

The Debt Relief Company had an automated performance review process pre-pandemic. Today, the focus is on communication. Employees provide input about job expectations, satisfaction levels, and goals. This now guides the performance review process.

Pivot 4: Take a Vacation from Performance Reviews

Altogether Smith and Eulo Law Firm decided to forego the annual performance review entirely until work returns to normal. “For the time being, we are trusting employees to hold themselves accountable,” Ken Eulo, founding partner, told SHRM.



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