The question of how to effectively gauge an employee’s performance on the job has been answered many times in many different ways, but there’s certainly no one agreed-upon method recommended by the human resources industry. Most experts agree that performance management is a critical part of having a successful business in today’s world and that effectively managing, developing and evaluating employees leads to a more efficient workforce and better company culture.

However, it’s deciding how to implement it within a certain company structure that can be challenging, and implementation is key to keeping the process effective rather than disruptive. The essay method of performance appraisal can be a great choice due to its thorough, thoughtful and unobtrusive nature.

Secrets to Effective Performance Appraisals

The truth is that effective performance appraisals take time. They take up the manager’s time, the employee’s time and the time of human resources, and they can potentially take up the time of teammates and co-workers who are asked about projects and collaboration.

For them to mean something, the process needs to be taken seriously, but that always must be balanced against the forward motion of the company and the day-to-day workloads of the employees in question.

Methods of Performance Appraisal

There are a number of methods used in today’s industries to evaluate employees. All of them require some sort of performance standard to be set at first and then an evaluation over a set period of time against that standard.

Some methods of review can be more effective than others, but some also require more dedicated time and thought from the manager or other evaluator. Some of the more common methods include the checklist method, the comparison or forced distribution method and the essay method.

Checklist Method of Performance Appraisal

With the checklist method, an employee is judged against a list of criteria. The criteria have been developed for the level or job of the employee, and usually all employees at similar levels are evaluated against it.

  • Yes/no checklists simply ask the evaluator to determine whether the employee exhibits the behavior defined in each criterion: for example, “comes to work on time,” “frequently contributes to group discussions” or “meets daily safety requirements.”

    It’s important to make sure that all criteria are phrased so that a "yes" is the desired answer because it can be very easy to confuse an evaluation when this isn’t the case. This provides a very simple and straightforward way of judging performance but won’t get into much nuance of individual strengths and weaknesses and may not do much to differentiate one employee from another.

  • Leveled checklists ask the evaluator to rate the employee on some sort of scale for each criterion. This could be a scale from one to five where five is optimal, or it could be a verbal scale with levels like “needs improvement,” “meets expectations” and “exceeds expectations.” Criteria might be “completes work within the timeline,” “collaborates with other departments” or “shows technical expertise.”

    These scaled ratings provide more nuance into each individual employee and should help highlight strengths as well as areas for improvement, but they require the manager to take more time to understand the performance within the department.

Comparison or Forced Distribution Methods

Comparison or forced distribution methods rate employees comparatively and against each other. This can be done in cases where an organization is rather flat, and it makes sense to compare a collection of employees together. The downside is that it can create a false sense of competition within employee groups or can result in bad attitudes.

  • Paired evaluations give the evaluator a set of employee comparisons and asks him to choose who is the better employee. This is normally done within a department. For example, a department of four employees would end up with six pairs for comparison, and the evaluator (or team) would then select the best employee within each pair. For larger departments, this can be time consuming for the evaluators.

  • Rankings simply ask the evaluator to rank employees from best to worst. This method is fully based on the perception of the evaluator and is not entirely popular because it is not systematic and can be easily affected by undiscovered bias on the part of the evaluator. It is, however, relatively easy to do for any manager who knows the team well.

  • Forced distribution methods focus on the fact that most evaluators tend to rate their employees well. It requires the evaluators to meet a set distribution within their evaluations such that each evaluation finds poor performers as well as excellent ones. While this can be a way to identify areas for improvement, it can also be read as having to meet a quota with ratings, which can lead to dissent.

Essay Evaluation Method

The essay method is a fairly straightforward approach in which the manager or evaluator writes a descriptive essay about each employee. The essay would cover the employees' achievements throughout the evaluation period as well as their strengths and weaknesses. The essay format gives the evaluators the flexibility to focus on whatever they personally find important about the individual’s performance.

However, the essay method can be time consuming for the manager, and it requires a certain level of writing skill for the evaluation to be meaningful. It also is unlikely to be systematic, which can make it difficult to compare evaluations from person to person.

Performance Appraisal Essays

The performance evaluation essay is maybe the most interesting of the methods, as it allows a manager to genuinely express thoughts about the employee in question rather than having to work with a template or list of criteria or comparisons.

There are advantages to this, mainly in allowing the appraisers to focus on what they feel is important for each individual whom they are evaluating. The downside of this apparent freedom is because the entire essay is subjective based on the evaluator’s approach, it becomes difficult to obtain any big-picture conclusions about the department, and it can be difficult to compare employees within a certain group.

The key to a successful performance appraisal essay is the writing skills of the person assembling it. Her attention to basic essay structure and her descriptions of the behaviors on which she focuses will determine whether the right message will get across during the evaluation, both to the employee and to the team of other managers and human resources employees who may be involved with ratings, promotions and improvement plans. Some attention to basic essay-writing principles should help the evaluator construct an essay that will be meaningful to all parties involved.

Basic Essay Writing

The following are essential to the writing of an effective performance appraisal essay:

  • Preparation: For any essay, the first step is to gather information about the topic at hand. In this case, the manager should take the time to review past performance, current expectations and future needs for each employee whom he intends to evaluate. Review the employee’s achievements this year and examine reports and project records to get a full picture of performance.

  • Evaluation: Once the information is at hand, it’s important to spend time connecting the dots to figure out what story the essay needs to tell about the employee’s performance. Identify any changes in the employee’s performance over the evaluation period and establish a list containing the behaviors that have been commendable and in which areas the employee could use improvement.

  • Creation: Construct the essay in a manner that suits the manager’s writing style. Be sure to use professional, fair language and describe in words the successes and challenges of the employee’s work over this time period. 

Writing the Essay

The essay should open with an introduction summarizing the work completed by the employee during the evaluation period. Be sure to note key projects and pay attention to ongoing work as well as completed jobs. This is the time to discuss what the employee has done and recognize his overall contribution to the business. For example:

Jon successfully supported the infrastructure team, the McAce project and the office renovations project with technical drawings and materials lists as requested. He personally was able to complete the ventilation upgrade project, which ran over schedule but came in under budget. He submitted all monthly reports on time and took a training course this year to improve his skills at AutoCAD.

Highlight Employee Successes

The next portion of the essay should highlight some real successes for the employee. Mention his strengths and any areas where he has shown visible improvement over past performance. In this portion, focus less on what was done and more on how it was done. To continue the example:

Jon’s skill at estimation has improved greatly over the past year, with only one of his personal projects running over budget (as compared to at least 50 percent the previous year). This makes it much easier for the department to manage our overall budget appropriately and is greatly appreciated. Jon has been described as “friendly” and “personable” by his teammates, who have no problem approaching him when they need a drawing or have a question. He also had huge success with his contributions to the McAce project, which would have fallen behind schedule without his work.

Outline Areas for Improvement

After calling out successes, take some time to consider areas in which the employee needs improvement. For employees currently meeting all expectations, consider their future career path: Are there areas they need to develop in order to move into a new position? For employees whose performance may not be up to par, try to address it fairly and be straightforward and logical.

A number of Jon’s projects ran over schedule this year. It appears that Jon’s technical understanding of the work at hand could perhaps use some development. One such corrective action might be making sure to check with operators and maintenance personnel before launching a new project concept to make sure the problem at hand is actually being solved. Also, while Jon’s open personality makes him approachable, it can also lead to Jon taking extra-long breaks for conversation throughout the day, which can disturb some employees from their work.

Note that the criticisms are couched calmly in specific language that isn’t accusatory or angry and that the behaviors described correlate to an undesirable outcome. In some cases, a corrective action should be suggested. In other cases, it’s best to wait until the final step and develop a path forward with the employee in question.

Create a Forward Plan

The essay should end with a forward plan for the employee, involving any additional training or development she may need to meet current expectations as well as some sort of idea of the next step in her career.

The final step in the performance assessment essay is, of course, reviewing the essay with each employee. It’s best to give the employee a chance to read the evaluation and then open the floor to any questions the employee might have about what’s been written.

If an employee wants to challenge an assertion, she can be encouraged to write a short essay in return discussing why she might disagree with the essay. It’s important to discuss the successes and give recognition where it’s due as well as the challenges in order to ensure the employee understands.