A few years back, I received a call from a cattle feedlot manager located in the western Plains who wanted some help doing performance evaluations. There had been no evaluations conducted for several years, and the reason soon became obvious. 

The feedlot manager told me that he had one department head who had to evaluate his ex-wife, the feed mill foreman needed to evaluate his own son and his father, and the office manager was the main stockholder’s niece. Also among the crew was one person who “cried anytime things went wrong,” an employee who never said anything to anyone, and yet another that argued about everything.  It was understandable why the business had avoided doing evaluations.

Though this combination of employees was a bit unique, partly because of the business’ remote location and limited labor pool, it is an opportunity to review the challenges that some employee evaluations can present. Here are a few of the keys to doing those “tough” evaluations.

The basics

When doing all evaluations it’s important for the employee’s direct supervisor to do the evaluation.  Employees dislike being evaluated by a person who doesn’t work directly with them every day, or who’s not well familiar with their regular duties.

Always try to make the employee feel comfortable, keep the discussion on topic, emphasize the job expectations and how well the employee is meeting those expectations. Use a standardized form with several quantifiable measurements such as production goals, attendance, recording accuracy, time management and such. Also include some subjective qualities like dependability, teamwork and communication skills.

Create a setting that avoids interruptions, and give the employee your full attention. Ask for suggestions on how to make the person’s efforts more productive and how to make the job more enjoyable. End with a summary of the person’s positive traits, what you appreciate about him or her and an action plan for any needed improvements.

Friends and relatives

Start by being up front about your position within the business and how doing evaluations is a part of your job. If the person expects favors because of your relationship, make it clear that’s unacceptable. If you grew up with the person or went to school with him or her, avoid talking about those parts of your relationship during the review session. 

In some situations where the prior relationship is truly an issue, it may be best to include another person as a witness during the session. That person won’t actually contribute to the discussion, but he will act as a buffer for you and the person being evaluated. This also can be valuable if there is a legal challenge in the future concerning favoritism. Remind everyone that this is a professional process, and that professionals have to deal with tough challenges and remove personal preferences and histories from the process.

The “arguer” or “interrupter”

This person may interrupt because he feels he has something more important to say than what you are talking about, or because he is trying to distract you from giving him some bad news. Give this person a chance to make his point (briefly), listen and ask questions for clarification, come to an agreement and then move on.

If he continues to interrupt, politely explain that you appreciate his interest to cover many topics but that time limitations require you both to stay on topic and on schedule. If he still continues to interrupt, put your hands out with your palms facing him (the hand signal for stop) or use a sports “time out” signal and confirm again that time requires you to focus and address the topic at hand.

The “crier”

Some people simply can’t help this, and crying can mean many things. If this situation surfaces during a review, give the person tissue and wait for him or her to gain composure. Tactfully ask the person to help you understand why this process is so difficult for her. Let the employee know that it’s not your intention to upset her, that you know this can be difficult for some people, and that you both have to get through this process out of fairness to everyone.

Be patient and give the person time to recover during the evaluation, but be sure to complete it in the allotted time and provide a full assessment of the person’s job performance. 

The “blamer”

This person will require you to continuously refocus on only his or her responsibilities. Cut him off if he continues to point to other people during the conversation. Remind him that everyone will be evaluated in due time, and that this session is his personal evaluation — not anyone else’s. Get him to talk about challenges, solutions and satisfactions that are specific to the job.

The “silent type”

Give this person time to respond.  People who are shy or generally quiet also tend to be introspective and analytical. You may be moving faster than this person is comfortable with, so be precise and use short sentences.

Ask him or her if she has any questions or if there are some areas that she’s unsure about. If you ask a question and she doesn’t respond at all, even after say 7 to 10 seconds, let her know that you appreciate her thoughtfulness, and that her input is essential. 

If the person still doesn’t respond, ask her an open-ended question, such as: “What else would you like to talk about?”  “Is there anything more that we need to address?”  “What do you think is the most important thing we need to talk about today?”

The “older” person

If a worker is older than you, he or she may have a problem taking your advice or seeing you as an authority.  It is not so much an age issue as it is an “age difference” issue. 

If this appears to be a problem, be up front with the person. Let him know that the age difference is not a problem for you, and that you respect him and his experience level. Perhaps you can mention something you’ve learned from him and his vast knowledge.

Establish why job evaluations are done and that they are a part of your management responsibilities.  Keep focused on the performance, not the person. During the actual evaluation avoid mentioning age or any issue perceived to be related to age such as forgetfulness, ability, endurance or willingness to try new things.

Additional strategies

Your body language is extremely important in any conversation, especially during evaluations. Show your interest with your mannerisms as well as your words. Lean forward, match the person’s level of eye contact, don’t cross your arms or put any other physical barriers between you — even sitting at a table is better than across a desk. Talk at the person’s level of volume and speed, and be sure to emphasize the most important words in a sentence to make your point.

Finally, always talk about the elephant in the room — in other words, don’t avoid the tough or obvious topics.

Don’t try to get through a tough situation by hoping it gets better on its own or by rationalizing that “it’s not that big of a deal” or “maybe they won’t notice.” If there is an issue that could make the evaluation difficult, talk about it upfront so there’s no mystery or the sense that there’s a hidden agenda.

Most of today’s workforce prefer frankness, openness and sincerity. Seeing those traits exhibited in the overall workplace gives workers a sense of confidence and stability.