“Mine was a waste of time. My boss did all the talking and there wasn’t even much of that. It took him twenty minutes to cover a year of my work.”
“Mine was a joke. The forms my company uses don’t have anything to do with the science I’m actually working on.”
“I don’t know about forms. What I do know is that what they pay me doesn’t connect with what they tell me.”
“My company’s forms aren’t so bad. What bothers me is we never get to the part about my professional development.”
Listen to a group of scientists in December and January, and you’re likely to hear these and many other complaints about performance appraisal dysfunction. Many science organizations do performance appraisals at year-end. Few do them well.
It’s understandable that science organizations struggle with performance appraisals. How is it possible to assess a scientist’s performance when positive experimental results may reflect sloppy lab work more than creativity or clear thinking? And how is it possible for scientists to overlook the inherent absurdity of the performance appraisal bureaucratic process? The very thought of using cumbersome, corporate, jargon-laden forms to assess a scientist’s performance in a 60-minute discussion can’t help but invite healthy skepticism if not outright rebellion.
Despite the struggles, it’s especially important to get science performance appraisals right. Done well, appraisals have great potential to motivate, focus, and help scientists pursue professional development in the areas that interest them most. For science organizations, effective performance appraisals help retain and develop key staff, build a positive organization culture, and advance science for all.
From Performance Appraisals To Performance Management: Quarterly?
The most important best practice we’ve seen is a quarterly, rather than the traditional annual approach. For people who struggle with cumbersome annual appraisals, the thought of repeating the process four times may initially seem absurd. However, shifting to a quarterly approach makes the discussions more current, focused on real job activities. Quarterly discussions require much less paperwork than annuals and thus often take less time overall than annual processes. Most importantly, quarterly discussions trigger a shift from performance appraisal to performance management. Both the manager and the employee can take a more active, positive role in jointly managing the employee’s performance and development.
Beyond a quarterly approach, other key best practices include:
- Having discussions scheduled throughout the year on the employee’s anniversary of hiring, not batched in a brief (typically year-end) time period
- Company forms that accurately describe employee jobs and performance criteria
- Discussion that devotes equal time to three topics—performance assessment, updating job priorities, and planning meaningful training/professional development
- Performance assessment that is objective, fair, and balanced
- Job priorities and expectations that are clear and updated for the next three months
- Pay that reflects employee performance in some way and aligns with organization goals
- Having senior leaders themselves give high-quality discussions
Seven Practical Tips For Both Managers and Employees
Whatever your organization does, it’s quite possible for scientists giving or getting performance appraisals to take several kinds of action to help you get the most from the process:
- Both manager and employee draft the forms. Having both people work with the forms makes discussions more productive.
- Exchange drafts of the forms before meeting. Knowing more about what the other person is thinking before the meeting helps make discussion less reactive, more thoughtful.
- Relate the forms to the job. If the organization’s paperwork doesn’t make the connections between what the person actually does and what they’re being assessed on, work to fill in the gaps and make the connections in the discussion.
- Work to make assessments fair. People struggle to be accurate, neither too negative nor too positive when assessing performance. Working to make assessments fair is well worth the effort.
- Discuss the question, “What do you want to get better at?” Many performance appraisal forms include useful questions about employees’ long-term goals. Meaningful professional development for most scientists also involves discussing new competencies they want to develop, ideas they want to explore, and papers they want to write.
- Develop clear action steps. The person being appraised should leave the discussion knowing as clearly as possible what the job priorities and expectations are for the next three months, as well as with some specific plans for meaningful professional development. The person giving the appraisal is likely to leave the discussion with some actions needed to support the employee’s professional development.
- Schedule a check-in in three months. Whether or not your organization does quarterly discussions, scheduling your own quarterly discussions help keep action plans on track, address changes, and make professional development more meaningful.