BY JASON B. HOSEA
The present and future success of your organization rests with its employees. A good evaluation process is possibly the most important tool an organization can have to ensure that success. Unfortunately, many organizations treat employee evaluations like a trip to the dentist—an uncomfortable but necessary event. Actually, a well thought-out and executed performance evaluation can provide long-term benefits to the company officer, the members of the company, and the entire organization. In addition, an effective evaluation process will protect you and your agency against legal action.
Several types of evaluation systems are in use today. You should familiarize yourself with your agency’s personnel policy regarding evaluation. Whether you are an evaluator or the one being evaluated, increasing your knowledge in the following areas will assist you in understanding the importance of evaluation and its effects on the employee and the organization.
To keep the evaluation process as consistent and as objective as possible, your agency should create an evaluation form that can be used for all employees in the same job category. The form should focus on how well the employee has performed the various duties of the job during the evaluation period. Probably the most important characteristic of an evaluation instrument is validity. A valid instrument measures what it is designed to measure. Most organizations tailor their evaluation forms to account for the responsibilities of the job position. However, the following general considerations apply to most positions and are appropriate to an evaluation:
- attendance and punctuality,
- attention to detail,
- work quality,
- initiative (willingness to take on new tasks and generate ideas),
- communication skills (oral and written), and
- management skills (if applicable).
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) publishes standards for a wide range of fire service positions. These documents outline standards for competency for fire service personnel based on that person’s knowledge and skills. The NFPA standard is a great place to start when designing an evaluation form. To tailor your form to your agency’s unique culture and rules, reference other documents such as a job analysis, department policies and procedures, and Civil Service rules and regulations.
Other items to consider when designing an evaluation form are simplicity, readability, and cost-effectiveness. An effective form should be simple and brief with short objective responses whenever possible. Behavioral Anchored Rating Scales (BARS) are commonly used and have been found very effective as an evaluation tool for the wide range of skills and knowledge fire personnel must acquire. Long responses and essays tend to detract from a more desirable simple approach.
Remember the audience for which the form is intended. The readability level should be appropriate for the participant’s knowledge, ability, and background. The natural tendency toward wordiness makes the document tedious to read and may possibly frustrate the participants. A document that is easily understood is more likely to be used consistently and correctly.
As with every other fire agency process, economics must be a consideration in the design, development, or purchase of an instrument. An effective form will be economical for its planned use. Since the form is usually filled out in the station, the length of time needed to complete the instrument is another cost that should be considered, as well as the time necessary to analyze the information with the employee.
Once the instrument is designed, training should be offered on how to administer it. An instrument should be easy to administer. Instructions and directions should be simple and straightforward, increasing the likelihood that the form will be used consistently throughout your organization.
MEETING WITH THE EMPLOYEE
Employee evaluations should start early. As a supervisor or company commander, the first meeting you have with the employee is the most critical. A good start is to “begin with the end in mind.” You and your crew members need to be clear on what outcomes you would like when going into the evaluation process. This accomplishes three objectives. First, the employee clearly understands the organization’s goals and how to orient his work toward accomplishing them. Second, it provides information to each employee intended to help him grow and develop skills that will ultimately support the organization’s future direction. And last, in the unfortunate instance of an employee’s termination for poor performance, the initial meeting or “expectations meeting” will provide a sound base for defending your evaluation of the employee when those expectations have not been met.
For subsequent evaluations, focus on specific examples of strengths and weaknesses in each category listed on the evaluation form. Give every member goals to meet for performance improvement, deadlines, and a plan on how to reach those goals. If the employee’s failure to improve may lead to disciplinary measures or termination, state this clearly during the meeting and in writing on the evaluation form.
An employee’s input is part of the evaluation process, and he should have the opportunity to respond to both positive and negative marks. After reviewing the evaluation form with the employee, make sure he understands what was discussed and read. The employee should have an opportunity to respond verbally, and the evaluation form may provide a space for written comments. This dialogue between supervisor and employee can be very beneficial to their working relationship.
Remember, the purpose of an evaluation is to help improve employee performance. The overall tone of the meeting should be as positive as possible. You want the employee to feel motivated to improve, not resentful. At the same time, you should not avoid the unpleasant task of giving criticism. If you should have legal trouble in the future, you will want to be able to show that you pointed out the employee’s performance problems and gave him the opportunities to improve.
You can improve the effectiveness of your meeting with the employee by adhering to the following guidelines:
- Select a quiet, comfortable, and appropriate location.
- Plan to avoid interruptions.
- Allow enough time to conduct the meeting.
- Be positive, and put the employee at ease.
- Review the ratings by category, keeping the meeting performance-oriented.
- Encourage the employee to talk, but remain firmly in control.
- Listen carefully.
- Develop positive action plans, placing emphasis on positive reinforcement.
- End the meeting on a positive and supportive note.
MISTAKES TO AVOID
The following is a list of common mistakes and pitfalls that may lead to an ineffective evaluation.
- Halo effect. The person is rated good or bad on all characteristics based on an experience or knowledge involving only one dimension of the person.
- Leniency. The evaluator rates everyone outstanding and gives inflated ratings instead of a true assessment of performance.
- Strictness. All individuals are rated at the low end of the scale, and the evaluator tends to be overly demanding or critical.
Average. Every person is rated average regardless of major differences in performance.
Evaluations are completed sporadically. This is not effective management and will not encourage employees to take them seriously.
Legislation, court cases, and government directives have added a new dimension to the employee evaluation process. If a terminated employee initiates a legal action against your organization, a judge or jury will analyze not only your evaluations but other actions regarding that employee as well. For example, a jury will sense that something is wrong if you consistently rate an employee’s performance as competent and abruptly decide to terminate that individual. The logical conclusion: You didn’t take the observations in your evaluation report seriously.
It is damaging to give an employee glowing praise in report after report, perhaps to avoid conflict, and then to fire him for a single infraction. That will strike most people as unfair; employers who are perceived as unfair often lose court fights, especially in situations in which an employee with whom the court or jury sympathizes appears to have been treated harshly.
Recent court decisions have emphasized the following factors, which should be carefully considered in evaluating an employee’s work performance:
- Evaluations should be measured in relation to any preexisting standards, objectives, or other specific job requirements.
- Evaluations should include definite identifiable criteria based on quality or quantity of work or specific performances supported by some kind of record. Whenever possible, use quantitative examples that can be expressed numerically. For example, it is preferable to state “donned breathing apparatus in 60 seconds” rather than “donned breathing apparatus in a timely manner.”
- Evaluation cannot be based solely on the supervisor’s subjective observations. Most evaluation systems require the rater to cite examples of performance.
- Documented evidence supporting evaluation elements is required.
As mentioned before, the success of an organization rests with its employees. As a supervisor, it is incumbent on you to help your members improve. The attainment of organizational goals coupled with maximum employee growth are the signs of true organizational success. But remember this: No one can change another person; the desire and will to change must come from inside that person. As a supervisor, you should attempt to create an atmosphere that makes employee development possible. In doing so, the employee, the supervisor, and the organization will change, grow, and develop successfully.
Barry, T.J., Managing People: Fire Officer Series. Stafford, VA: International Society of Fire Service Instructors, 1987.
Lybrook, D.O., “Employee performance evaluations: How to do them right.” Purdue News (online), Feb. 2001. Web site: http://news.uns.purdue.edu/UNS/html4ever/ 0102.OLybrook.eval.hml.
Neal, J.E., Effective Phrases for Performance Appraisals: A Guide to Successful Evaluations, 10th edition. Perrysburg, OH: Neal Publications, Inc., 2003.
Phillips, J.J., Handbook of Training Evaluation and Measurement Methods, third edition. Houston, TX: Gulf, 1991.
Walsh, M. L., ed., Effective Supervisory Practices, third edition. Washington, D.C.: International City/County Management Association, 1995.
JASON B. HOSEA is a captain with the Long Beach (CA) Fire Department and a part-time lecturer on occupational studies at California State University, Long Beach. He has a master’s degree in emergency services administration, a bachelor’s degree in vocational education, both from California State University, Long Beach, and an associate’s degree in fire technology.