Helpful Hints for Staff Performance Reviews

by Linda Oligschlaeger

In an ideal world, employers and employees would take time on a regular basis to sit down together in a coaching session to discuss performance and career goals. After all, a coach huddles with the players during the game many times to help win the game. The strategic direction given by the coach helps the players to work their way to the goal line. However, in the business world, time is such a precious commodity that the strategic coaching often amounts to a quick barking of orders, and then it's back to business.

At this time of the year - either at the end or beginning of another calendar year - many law firms do attempt to set aside at least a small amount of time for staff performance reviews. Some never get beyond the "thinking about doing it" stage; some think formalized reviews are a bad idea or don't think they are necessary; some who actually conduct reviews fall into performance review pitfalls. Performance reviews should not be dreaded, but rather a positive interaction between employer and employee even if a bit of correction is necessary. Review season can, in fact, be a good time for employer and employee to sit down together to talk about much more than performance. Employees who do not get feedback from their employers can't help but wonder what the "boss" truly thinks of their work, and often they continue conducting themselves without direction, guessing what is expected of them.

Performance Review Benefits

Benefits gained from conducting performance reviews include:

  • Recognition of good performance;
  • The elimination of confusion or uncertainty on the job with clarification of what is expected;
  • Promoting a sense of accomplishment and feeling of pride,
  • The opportunity to correct and/or motivate where needed;
  • A chance to review compensation and benefits;
  • Establishing career goals and plans.

The primary reason for law firms to conduct performance reviews is to compare the employee's performance with that of the expectations of the firm. Performance reviews can be opportunities to adjust or refine performance and expectations by coaching and soliciting employee suggestions to improve performance or attitude. It can also be an excellent opportunity to discuss career goals, job enrichment, and incentives. This is particularly important for an excellent employee who the firm wishes to retain. Such employees may have important input on how to further enrich their position that not only causes them to remain dedicated to the firm, but can cause the firm to benefit enormously. A responsible employee can be delegated tasks to help market the firm in the community, help with accounts payable collection, or perhaps interact more closely with clients all saving valuable time for the lawyers in the firm. It may be discovered during the review that a valued employee could be retained through options such as flex-time or other arrangements.

Tips for Successful Performance Reviews

Step 1. Do your homework. Like anything else, a bit of preparation and forethought will cause the performance review to be more productive. The evaluator should gather and study relevant information about the employee's performance in advance. You might consider informally asking other lawyers or staff in the office about how well this person works with them.

Step 2. Schedule an appointment with the employee in advance. Set aside an uninterrupted period of time for the review. Encourage the employee to take an active role in the evaluation and to feel confident in asking for feedback. To help make the employee feel more at ease, consider holding the evaluation in a conference room or sit in the client chairs facing each other, rather than the reviewer sitting behind a desk. Neither the reviewer nor employee should dominate the discussion.

Step 3. Let the person being evaluated know in advance the purpose and benefits of the review. This is an important way of placing the employee at ease. Most reviews should be a pleasant experience for both employer and employee.

Step 4. Make the interview as constructive as possible. Stress job performance rather than personality traits. Make the critique a learning experience for the employee. When discussing areas where improvements are needed, give examples of how the improvement can be made. The most popular format for the interview is the "sandwich" format - correction sandwiched between positive comments. The rationale behind this technique is that it creates a more positive experience. However, you must be careful that your important points are not glossed over. When improvements are in order, develop a plan to achieve the improvements and schedule a definite time to follow-up.

Step 5. The ultimate responsibility should be placed on the employee for continued good performance. Let employees know that the job of the evaluator is to assist them to overcome problems that interfere with reaching their goals. Also, make it known to the employee that you are available to discuss any changes in plans discussed during the evaluation.

When Correction Is Needed

The review process is fairly comfortable for all when an "attaboy/girl" is being handed out. However, when correction is needed, the process doesn't necessarily have to be unpleasant. Needed corrections should not be put off until the end of the year, but rather should be addressed at the time of the occurrence. If the problem involves technical skills, a logical solution might be training. Or perhaps the person is not the right fit for the job and could be moved to another position that requires less skill or differing skills. If it's a personality conflict, sometimes individual or group counseling with the person may resolve the issue. As always, the emphasis should remain on specific behaviors rather than personality traits.

Performance Review Pitfalls

Evaluators tend to fall into several common traps. Reviewing these pitfalls can help you recognize a trap when you see one.

1. Halo-effect. On occasion one characteristic about a person, either positive or negative, strongly influences all other attitudes about that person. For example, a physically attractive employee may not be held accountable for errors with as much scrutiny as a person who is not as attractive.

2. Leniency-strictness effect. Some evaluators have a tendency to give all high marks, while others tend to evaluate the same performance as average or less than average. In fact, some employees can subtly bully evaluators into all high marks every year, which can defeat the purpose of the evaluations - especially when others are rated more fairly. Rarely will an employee receive all outstanding ratings consistently year after year - no one is quite that perfect. It's important that all evaluators use the same standards for their evaluations to maintain consistency throughout the law office.

3. Contrast effect. The evaluation of one employee's performance may be influenced by the performance of the others being evaluated. For example, an employee might receive a more than favorable review when following a poor performer or a less than favorable evaluation when followed by the shinning star of the office.

4. Recency effect. Recent events tend to have an usually strong influence on performance evaluations. An employee's good work for the entire year might be overshadowed by one negative incident that happened prior to the review.

5. Central tendency effect. Some evaluators give all average ratings to avoid taking a risk to identify marginal or outstanding performance. Again, this defeats the entire process.

Who Should Conduct the Review?

Each lawyer should evaluate the staff person performing services directly for him/her. In situations where the employee performs services for more than one lawyer, the reviewer should gain input from every lawyer involved. Without the perspectives of all lawyers who share employees, the evaluation may be incomplete.

In some offices, the office manager or administrator may handle all personnel functions, from hiring to evaluating performance. If this task is delegated, it is important to at least discuss the employee's performance with the lawyers who the employee does work for so that the reviewer has an accurate viewpoint of the employee's performance and any needed adjustments.

Evaluation Form

The evaluation form may consist of a series of questions or comments to be used by the evaluator. Some forms include a point system to rate the employee, others use a narrative description. Regardless of the form used, it is important that a consistent form be used for all employees being evaluated.

Evaluation and Firm Planning

The retention of good employees is critical to the firm's bottom line and its ability to effectively serve clients. A thorough review of staff evaluations and an assessment of those evaluations can be helpful in firm planning. Some trouble spots to watch out for include: high turnover, particularly when good employees are not receiving adequate feedback or recognition for their work; too many poor quality ratings - which raises questions whether the staff is properly trained or given direction about what is expected of them; year after year, the same shortcomings are identified and little improvement is made. Is the staff receiving guidance to make improvements or are the evaluations simply filed away year after year without follow-up and monitoring of the issues?

Conclusion

Coaching your staff is an essential element of proper supervision - as important as adequate training and providing feedback so that staff is not left guessing whether they are meeting the firm's expectations. It should be a positive experience for both employer and employee. Even if some correction is necessary, it's a simple matter of fairness to discuss the expectations and what needs to be corrected. The investment in the time to give feedback and direction to employees is well worth the effort. It's an investment that will yield good working relationships that benefit all concerned.

Linda Oligschlaeger is the Membership Services Director at The Missouri Bar. Linda provides assistance with law practice management issues as well as administers the Fee Dispute Resolution and Complaint Resolution Programs.