Job reviews

On Thursday mornings Josh Boesch, a partner at staffing firm Lutz Talent, sets aside a 2½-hour block to meet one-on-one with each of the five people he supervises.

“If there’s a burr under the saddle we can resolve it quickly,” Boesch said.

Two years ago Lutz Talent dropped its traditional once-a-year employee performance review in favor of weekly one-on-ones and frequent feedback from supervisors. Workers still receive annual reviews, with a six-month check-in, but going into a review, employees are less likely to be blindsided, Boesch said.

The old-style once-a-year performance review is on the wane at some organizations. More employers are using performance-management software — some of it produced in Omaha — or other online tools to supplement the annual review and help both workers and managers track performance.

“The traditional review is really, really time-consuming,” said Phil Haussler, head of product at Quantum Workplace, an Omaha software company that provides online feedback tools for employee engagement and performance.

Another drawback: “Performance reviews are ... unreliable,” Haussler said, citing a study that found performance ratings reveal more about the person doing the rating and his biases than the person being rated. (The study, made public in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2000, was called “Understanding the Latent Structure of Job Performance Ratings.”)

In recent years, local organizations that have tweaked the evaluation process have included Creighton University, Hudl, Lutz Talent and Woodmen of the World.

At Lutz, manager and employee review the prior week’s successes, cover any bumps in the road and set goals for the following week, Boesch said.

The meetings create a “safe zone where employees can openly talk about what worked and what didn’t work.” Anecdotally, he said, turnover is lower.

Whatever type of performance review they use, companies still need some kind of yardstick to measure employee performance, human resources professionals say. And in the past five years some employers in the Omaha area have stepped up the pace in using appraisals to identify weak performers and, in some cases, show them the door.

In the past three months, for example, about 39 percent of candidate searches that staffing firm Lutz has been requested to perform on behalf of clients have been to replace underperformers. That compares with about 29 percent tied to normal turnover and 33 percent for newly created positions, Boesch said.

Samuel Culbert, author of “Get Rid of the Performance Review,” said that if employers are weeding out a substantial number of workers because they’re underperforming, it’s because the employer had a hand in creating a bad worker to begin with.

“They’re the employees they failed to help,” Culbert said in an interview.

“Managers: Your job isn’t to weed out bad performers. Your job is not just to give feedback, but help employees to perform their job,” he said.

The remedy? Jettison the performance review and replace it with “honest two-way conversations” in which workers ask for help and coaching from their supervisors to do a better job, said Culbert, a professor of management and organizations at UCLA.

Clinical psychologist Aubrey Daniels, who is said to have coined the term “performance management” more than 40 years ago, agreed: A supervisor’s mission is to help people improve, he said.

“When you change to that focus it becomes a healthier organization,” he said. “Supervisors should be saying to their employees ‘I have a problem and I need your help.’ People respond to that,” said Daniels, founder of Aubrey Daniels International, an Atlanta-based management consulting company.

And employees thrive on communication, said Stacy Gutierrez, senior human resources consultant at Woodmen of the World in Omaha. “Some people want a website, some people want a video and some people want face to face,” Gutierrez said.

The Omaha insurance company still does a traditional performance review, but it also uses online tools for employees and managers to assess their performance. A midyear check-in helps ensure workers are on track.

Woodmen recently made changes, though, formalizing a list of requirements.

“We’ve always done one-on-one meetings,” Gutierrez said. Last year the company made them a requirement. At minimum, supervisors must meet once a month for a one-on-one with each worker.

Other new requirements include an employee attending one “skip-level” meeting each year. That means an employee meets with the supervisor to whom his or her manager reports. Each year workers are required to participate in a small executive roundtable discussion, 15 people or fewer, with an executive officer.

Creighton University installed a web-based tool three years ago that tracks achievements and documents, professional and personal goals and manager/employee conversations.

The university’s 1,200 staff and administration employees still receive annual performance reviews that are tied to compensation, but the change to a designated online system allows employees to identify their projects and accomplishments throughout the 12-month period for a more “holistic” view, said Janel Allen, director of human resources.

“It doesn’t mean that conversations weren’t happening” before the system was put in place, Allen said, “but we didn’t have a way of documenting it.”

One problem with the more traditional annual review is the “recency bias”: the tendency for managers to focus on the previous six weeks or so rather than the 12-month period it’s intended to evaluate, said Adam Parrish, human resources manager at Hudl.

Hudl, a Lincoln-based sports video technology company that also has offices in Omaha, changed its approach to the annual review last year. The old system, which used a scoring system to rate workers, was replaced by a software program that provides continuous feedback and allows peer-to-peer shout-outs for “great work.” Managers are now required to meet more frequently with employees.

Annual reviews, which are tied to compensation, are still in the mix, but the intention is to lessen the surprise factor.

Under the new format an employee has a 30-minute check-in with his or her manager every two weeks. It can be a challenge for some managers with larger staffs to schedule the time, Parrish said, but the payoff is the system more readily nips problems in the bud.

“If there is less-than-stellar performance it should be addressed immediately as opposed to five months after the fact,” Parrish said.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1142, janice.podsada@owh.com

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