Rethinking the Annual Performance Evaluation

We all know the drill. Another year has passed, and it is time for that much-anticipated pay raise, but before you can plan on spending your additional take-home dollars, you must endure your annual employee performance evaluation. Even for the most hardened fire service veteran, the thought of sitting down with the boss to talk about how you do the job causes more than a few butterflies.

Performance evaluations can be described as a process that uses predetermined standards to evaluate the performance of an employee over a designated and an established period. The overarching goal is to provide review and feedback with a focus on strengths, areas of needed improvement, and the establishment of goals. A properly developed and delivered evaluation should be sufficiently specific to inform and guide the employee in the performance of duties.

The problem is that too often performance evaluations provide no clear direction; they’re simply tradition, and fire service bosses are going through the motions. The overall evaluation process is often viewed as little more than a formality that accomplishes little or nothing in the way of true feedback or help to the employee.1 In the end, employees don’t like receiving them, and bosses don’t like giving them, thereby making them the most hated of management tools.

Generally, annual performance evaluations don’t work for three reasons: (1) Once a year is too infrequent; (2) annual evaluations are too formal to be effective; and (3) employees view them as something to be feared, which can hinder performance. This can stifle creativity and make employees fearful of sharing personal goals and desires. (1)

When it comes to performance evaluations, firefighters typically harken back to their school days and find the appraisal system reminiscent of that dreaded report card. They may have 20-plus years on the job, but they still have vivid memories of report cards chastising them for their inability to sit quietly, focus for more than five minutes, and not mess with the student sitting at a desk nearby. As my daughter finishes college and prepares for her future teaching career, I am convinced that she can help us find our future firefighter candidates based on how they behave in the classroom.

The bosses feel the evaluations are time consuming, are uncomfortable, often have questionable value, and sometimes can hurt more than help. This often drives them to provide evaluations that are inflated and not reflective of the employee’s overall performance.2

Likewise, bosses often bring all kinds of personal quirks and biases, both conscious and unconscious, that influence how they review employees. These biases have the potential to result in disparate impact charges that can bring serious consequences to the supervisor and the department. (2)

Disparate impact is defined as a theory of liability in which an employer fails to use a facially neutral employment practice, resulting in an unjustified adverse impact on members of a protected class. A facially neutral employment practice does not appear to be discriminatory on its face but is discriminatory in its application or effect.3 As an example, in a Silicon Valley study of almost 250 performance reviews, three-quarters of the women were criticized for their personalities. Words and phrases such as “abrasive,” “sharp elbowed,” “territorial,” and “not a team player” were used to describe women in the workplace. On the other hand, the men were lauded for their aggressive behavior. (2)

Impact on Youngest Employees

It is estimated that by 2020, millennials will comprise 50 percent of the United States workforce. Millennials were born between the years of 1982 and 2004 and grew up in an electronics-filled, online, and social network world.4 Workplace satisfaction is a top priority to millennials; work and life balance follows closely. Making money is not a driving motivational factor for millennials and is far outpaced by their focus on doing something they consider meaningful. Millennials are generally team players and feedback seekers. They prefer feedback in real time with frequent and instant reviews. They like to check in often to receive encouragement and tips on how to improve their performance. They are eager to learn and develop and are flexible to change when provided with clear and specific direction in honest dialogue. They appreciate a heads-up on their behavior, skills, job knowledge, and attitude. They highly desire a mentor-type relationship where they receive guidance on their individual careers rather than the typical dictatorial officer relationship common in the fire service.5

This need for real-time feedback is not compatible with our historical “once-a-year” performance review systems. In a 2015 TriNet survey of 1,000 U.S. full-time millennial employees, more than half felt that their managers were usually unprepared, and nearly nine out of 10 said that they would feel more confident if they could have more frequent performance conversations with their managers. Failure of employers to meet the feedback need of these employees breeds job dissatisfaction and will often result in high employee turnover.

In the TriNet survey, more than 28 percent of respondents said that they had reacted to an annual performance review by looking for a new job.6 This contrasts with the fact that satisfied millennials are known for their loyalty and often become huge employee advocates for their organizations. Part of their satisfaction is driven by timely and appropriate feedback. (5)

Performance review dissatisfaction is not confined to employees and their bosses. Even human resources (HR) managers are generally dissatisfied with the current appraisal systems. In a joint survey conducted by The Society of Human Resource Managers & Personnel Decisions International, 32 percent of HR professionals were unsatisfied or very unsatisfied with their organization’s employee appraisal systems. They identified deficiencies in areas of leadership development, employee coaching, 360° feedback, and development planning.7

Dr. Tori Culbertson of Kansas State University writes: “It is not so much that the performance review needs to be abolished, but we need to fix what is broken. Instead of limiting ourselves to formal performance appraisals conducted once or twice a year, we need to think about performance management as a system that is linked with the strategy of the entire organization ….If we are going to have once-a-year evaluations, we shouldn’t expect them to work.”8

Performance Management

Employee Performance Management is a process for establishing a shared understanding about what is to be achieved by employees. It is about aligning the department’s goals and objectives with the employees’ skills, competencies, and development plans and the delivery of results. The emphasis is on improvement, learning, and developing to achieve the goals of the department and the firefighter and to create a high-performance workforce.

The basic principles of performance management are for the supervisor and the employee to set and agree on goals. Goals need to focus on how the employee’s actions will work to meet the department’s goals while also working to build and enhance the employee on a personal level. Metrics for measuring the employee’s success in meeting these goals must be clearly articulated and should be in writing. The goals should be flexible enough to reflect changing conditions but specific enough to be measurable.

Employees should be encouraged to think of their bosses as coaches who are there to help them achieve success personally and professionally. For the bosses, it is important to remember that coaching is not a once-a-year event. Officers need to continually work to mentor and develop their employees, day in and day out.

Learning from the Private Sector

Deloitte is a UK-incorporated multinational professional services firm specializing in audits, consulting, financial advisory, risk management, tax, and related services. Its clients include 80 percent of the Fortune 500 companies as well as an additional 6,000 private and middle-market companies. Deloitte has spent several years assessing its employee performance evaluation system and has found its model to be increasingly out of step with the company’s objectives related to training, promotion, and pay. “ … the current performance management approach drives neither employee engagement nor high performance. They (the employees) and we are in need of something nimbler, real-time, and more individualized—something squarely focused on fueling performance in the future rather than assessing it in the past.”9

Deloitte redesigned its process because it came to realize that once-a-year reviews did not fit within a “real-time world” and that conversations about year-end ratings were less valuable than conversations conducted in the moment about actual performance. Also problematic was the phenomenon “idiosyncratic rater effects,” which throws a significant curveball into the desire to develop a performance review process that focuses on the individual employee’s performance while still recognizing that the person in the best position to judge the individual’s performance is the immediate supervisor.10

In question was the raters’ perceptions about how much value should be attached to a given review category. “Although it is implicitly assumed that the ratings measure the performance of the ratee, most of what is being measured by the ratings is the unique rating tendencies of the rater. Thus, ratings reveal more about the rater than they do about the ratee.” (9)

Deloitte began its policy revision by looking for identifiable similar performance characteristics from their companies’ best performing teams. What became evident is that the teams were all “strengths oriented”: Team members are placed in positions where they can employ their individual strengths on a regular basis to consistently benefit the company. This strengths orientation fostered an employee attitude where the employees were able to use their strengths every day, their coworkers were committed to doing quality work, and they were inspired by the mission of the company. (9)

The company then focused on the idiosyncratic rater effect by changing the questions asked as part of the performance review process. Although supervisors rate other people’s skills inconsistently, they are highly consistent when rating their own feelings and intentions. Deloitte leveraged this by developing a system that does not ask about the employees’ skills but rather about the supervisor’s desired future actions with respect to the employees. Questions included the following:

  • How strongly would I push to always have this person on my team?
  • On a scale of 1-5, at what level is this person at risk for low performance?
  • What could I do to make this person a stronger team member?
  • When coaching this team member, how am I doing with regular interaction, review, and feedback? Do I focus regularly on what is the simplest view of the employee or on what is the richest? How do I personally help the employees be their absolute best? (9)

Like Deloitte, Adobe has also significantly modified its employee appraisal system by implementing a more informal “check-in” process that takes place throughout the year; employees receive feedback on what they’re working on at any given moment. The theory is that the more often employees receive feedback, the more productive and focused they’ll be. (1)

The New Concepts and the Fire Service

A strength of the fire service work environment is that supervisors and subordinates live, eat, and bunk in the same firehouse. Company officers ride the rig with their personnel, and frequent communication regarding a variety of topics takes place throughout the shift. This strength is also a weakness in that often this closeness becomes a barrier for effective discussions related to job performance. Although bosses frequently talk with their members, the focus on “being the team’s coach” is often missing. Tom Landry said, “A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.”11

Coaching is not a once-a-year event. It involves constant day-to-day listening, motivating, training, inspiring, and mentoring with a focus on building a team that can consistently carry out the department’s mission.

Beyond the normal day-to-day interactions, bosses should hold regular “check-in meetings” with subordinates. These meetings may be formal or informal and should be used not only to check on project status and performance but also to evaluate the emotional and psychological health of their team members.

As fire service leaders, we too often find ourselves asking our people, “How is it going?” and we receive the standard answer of, “Okay.” This is because firefighters by nature are self-reliant, mission-driven personalities who simply do the work and fix the problems. They will complain about the evening dinner and how the prior shift did not empty the kitchen garbage but will typically not tell the boss about a problem until the firefighter is behind the proverbial eight ball.

Using a “topic template” is often helpful in minimizing this situation during the “check-in meetings.” These templates give the employee time to prepare and focus on the discussion while giving the supervisor a forum for asking questions, making notes, and providing feedback. The topics may be as broad as finalized activities, pending activities, new activities, budget impact, individual development, needs, or any other generalized category deemed important to discuss. These templates should be department specific and changeable based on varying needs from time to time.

Another key aspect of being the coach is that you make yourself available and approachable.

As members climb the fire service organizational ladder and are assigned increased responsibilities over divisions and major projects, providing written weekly/monthly reports to your upper-level chiefs should be used to document accomplishments, concerns, and project status. These reports then become the basis for the check-in meetings with the upper-level chief officers. These reports should become part of the employee’s personnel file. When the reports are viewed collectively, they should provide a clear visual progression on project management, organizational challenges, and accomplishments. Upper-level chief officers should review the reports with their employees at least quarterly in a “collective format” to piece together the big picture and identify trends, positive and negative.

Regardless of your supervisory level within the organization, when meeting with subordinates, focus discussions on goals—goals for the organization; the employee’s role in accomplishing these goals; how the goals are progressing; and how you, as their supervisor/manager, can help them better accomplish the goals.

Additionally, bosses need to recognize that it is not always about department goals. Supervisors need to know and understand their employees’ personal goals and be willing to help where possible.

These check-in meetings, coupled with some basic documentation, form the basis for a performance management system that replaces the annual performance evaluation model. The annual “big meeting” is replaced with a much more relevant, real-time review that focuses on helping the employee be successful instead of reviewing issues that are in the past. These check-in meetings are much nimbler, less stressful, typically quicker, and do a better job in providing performance reviews to the employee; they also ensure that the goals are kept as a priority for the boss and the subordinate.

Calculating Pay Raises

In many career departments, pay raises are determined by the collective bargaining process, and evaluations have little impact on the amount of raise an employee receives. Other collective bargaining agreements (CBA) reference evaluations and adjust pay based on performance. Members not covered by a CBA almost always receive pay raises based on their annual review.

The challenge of taking away the annual review along with the typical numerical rating system makes pay raises more subjective and less programmed. When moving to the check-in meeting process, the focus needs to transition to accomplishment of goals and how the employee handles the ever-occurring hurdles that seemingly always pop up throughout the course of any given year.

RELATED: EVALUATING PERFORMANCE TO CREATE OWNERSHIP | Effective and Simple Performance Evaluations for Fire Service Personnel | The 360° Performance Evaluation Tool

Evaluate employees and award pay raises based on how employees work through the problems (regardless of whether a favorable outcome was achieved) and how they manage goals. Pay raises based on this criterion cause the employees to focus more clearly on performance and to move away from simply “putting in their time.”

One Size Does Not Fit All

Although check-in meetings offer a distinct advantage over the annual performance evaluation model, evaluation components can vary depending on what you are trying to measure and the needs of the department at any given time. Fire departments are not static machines, and their performance evaluation needs vary at times. Using the same evaluation system year after year is likely not in the best interest of the organization and will frequently become stale and not produce the desired results. Varying the measurement tools is often helpful in uncovering issues and finding hidden strengths and weaknesses you can use to enhance employee performance. Examples follow.

  • Self-evaluation. This tool often helps employees explore their personal strengths and weaknesses. No employee wants to be a problem or weak link within an organization. Regardless of the attitude employees project, deep down they want to do a good job. The self-evaluation tool helps employees to critically analyze their own performance and to provide insight into their strengths and weaknesses. It is also recognized that most people are consistently interested in themselves—their own insights, achievements, and impacts. A self-evaluation system provides a tool for employees to share what is best about themselves and how their strengths can positively impact the department. (9) A perception fallacy is that if you ask employees to rate themselves, they will give themselves high marks since they will not tell their boss where they are weak. This is not the case. Employees tend to be brutally honest in self-evaluations. Using this tool, which relies on the idiosyncratic rater effect, can offer a unique picture of the employee from which the supervisor can learn a great deal and will typically gain information that can be used as discussion starters during the regular check-in meetings.
  • Peer/360° evaluation. Peer evaluations have shown promise in improving individual employee effort and performance in the work environment. Accountability is integral to work teams. In peer evaluations, the accountability comes from the team and not through the hierarchical authority of the supervisor. These tools are primarily used for supervisors; feedback is sought in a confidential process. The supervisor only sees the final evaluation and the compiled comparison graphs. (See “The 360° Performance Evaluation Tool,” Craig A. Haigh, Fire Engineering, July 2016.)
  • Joint supervisor evaluations. In some cases, fire department employees are supervised by more than one equally ranked supervisor. This is often the case with volunteer and part-time firefighters and firefighters routinely moved between houses. To provide a comprehensive evaluation, feedback is required from each of the supervisors. A joint supervisor evaluation form works well to elicit feedback from each supervisor. In this case, one supervisor is designated as the lead and will complete the finalized evaluation document and employee review/check-ins. Other appropriate supervisors will complete the joint supervisor evaluation form and submit it to the one serving in the lead position. The lead then “cuts and pastes” the narrative statements into the final document and tallies and averages any numerical ratings for each category. The final product is an evaluation tool that provides feedback from all employee supervisors.


It has been a long-standing management principle that the annual performance evaluation serves as a tool to document ongoing performance problems, thereby lending support for employee discipline and, in some cases, discharge. The problem, as identified earlier, is that bosses generally do a poor job in managing performance evaluations and often inflate reviews because of the inherent problems with the system, thereby negating the value of the tool for this purpose. Also, the once-a-year sit-down does little in terms of making the employee aware and providing the opportunity to make course corrections.

Bosses generally dislike always thinking about the need to prepare a case for employee discipline, yet documentation remains a cornerstone component in the management of serious disciplinary action. The bottom line is that even the best legal team cannot help manage your personnel issues if you don’t have a paper trail.

This is where the regular check-in meeting excels. During these meetings, the supervisor uses the tools to constantly work through the process of making the employee aware of performance strengths and deficiencies. Once aware of concerns, the employee can make corrections, and the supervisor has a means to check on progress and lend support where possible. Supervisors need to document these discussions and be sure to make the employee aware of the consequences of future infractions or failure to improve performance.

To maintain the paper trail, it is best to use a standardized departmental system in which notes and discussion templates can be maintained for future reference, retrieval, and review by other department supervisors. An easy model that works well is to have a conversation with the employee and follow up with an e-mail or memo documenting the discussion. Save and file the e-mail/memo.

Employee performance reviews are important. More frequent and timely discussions help to maintain employee focus and effectiveness. If you plan to change your evaluation process, do it slowly. Take time to listen, test, and refine the process to ensure that it best meets the needs of your organization and employees.


1. Performance Reviews [Special section]. (2017). Entrepreneur.

2. Vara, V. (2015, July 24). “The Push Against Performance Reviews.” [Article].

3. Farley. (2017). Disparate Impact. In Farley (Ed.). Legal-Dictionary.

4. Rouse, M. (2015). Millennials (Millennial generation). Retrieved from

5. The Future of Work [Article]. (2017).,/3052988/heres-what-millennials-want from-their-performance-reviews.

6. TriNet. (2015). Survey finds performance reviews negatively impact productivity, moral and talent retention. Retrieved from

7. Fandray, D. (2001, April 29). “The New Thinking in Performance Appraisals,” [Article]. Workforce Magazine, 36-40.

8. Culbertson, SS, Henning, JB, & Payne, SC. (2013). Performance Appraisal Satisfaction: The role of feedback and goal orientation (12). Journal of Personnel Psychology: Hogrefe Publishing Corp.

9. Buckingham, M & Goodall, A. (2015, April). “Reinventing Performance Management,” Harvard Business Review.

10. London, M. (2009). How People Evaluate Others in Organization. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

11. Runner Things (Producer). Tom Landry [Quote]. Retrieved from

CRAIG A. HAIGH, a 34-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Hanover Park (IL) Fire Department and a field staff instructor with the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute. He has managed volunteer, combination, and career departments; served as interim village manager; implemented intermediate and paramedic services; developed courses for the fire service; and is an FDIC International H.O.T. instructor. He has a BS in fire and safety engineering and an MS in executive fire service leadership and is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program.

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