Worker evaluations shouldn't be brutal, but they need to be honest and accurate to protect employers from a wrongful-termination lawsuit.

One of the hardest things to do is to talk to another person about things they're doing wrong. Likewise, employers often forgo doing employee evaluations altogether or only bring up positive things, hoping to do themselves a favor by maintaining peace and harmony in the workplace.

The reality is the only person they're doing a favor for is the employee. In fact, an employer who either doesn't do evaluations or isn't fully honest in evaluations is setting the company up for potential legal trouble. Without a prior record of performance problems -- or worse, having a stellar review -- a fired employee may feel discriminated against and be tempted to file a lawsuit. The employer would then be stuck arguing against their own rosy evaluation of the employee. Let's just say that's never a good way to win over a jury.

Beyond that, employees can't be blamed for not meeting expectations when all they receive is positive feedback. They will likely be shocked, and even hurt, when lingering problems suddenly come to light.

So what should be in an evaluation? An evaluation should reflect the entire evaluation period, whether it is three months, six months, or a year. They should be honest and contain both the good and the bad. That's not to say employers have to be mean and hurtful. But if an employee is not meeting production standards, the evaluation should say so. And if the employee is consistently having a number of quality issues that is above acceptable levels, the evaluation should say so, too.

More than anything, the evaluation should be an accurate summary of the past evaluation period. If an employee was consistently tardy at the start of the evaluation period, but after a warning started to come around, this should be reflected in the evaluation with a simple statement, such as "Joe significantly improved his attendance after counseling about his unacceptable number of absences." This reflects the fact that Joe was having attendance problems at one point in time, the problems were serious enough that a warning was needed, but after being talked to he has improved. This captures the reality of the employment relationship, both the good and the bad. It also preserves the fact there were problems. That way, if a pattern develops over the next few years, there is a history that can support the ultimate action that was taken.

It is not enough, however, to just make sure that the evaluation reflects what has happened in the past. Evaluations are the first thing that is looked at in an effort to prove the employer is treating employees fairly. When challenged by a fired worker, employers who take the time to give every employee a chance to succeed are those that stand the best chance of surviving the scrutiny of the court process. An effective evaluation contains not only the notations of what has happened in the past year, both good and bad, but also what the employee needs to do to succeed in the next evaluation period, as well as what the employer is going to do to help the employee achieve the goals.

This doesn't need to be complicated or written as the next great American novel. It simply requires the employer taking the time to identify areas where an employee can grow -- whether it is improving attendance, improving production compliance, or improving communications to display a more positive attitude. The employer's assistance doesn't have to be complicated. If the issue is attendance, the employer can simply remind the employee of policy. If the issue is meeting production standards, it may be re-training the employee in techniques to reduce quality issues. If the issue is communication and poor attitude, it may be to refer the employee to the employee assistance program (if the company has one) to identify ways to deal with frustration and anger that may behind the poor attitude.

Evaluations should not just be a snapshot of the time they are written. They should be a recap of the past evaluation period and a forecast of expectations for the next one. This keeps everyone on the same page and reduces the risk of getting sued by a disgruntled employee


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