5 Things to avoid in performance evals

Good evaluations are hard to do, even for the best-trained; avoiding some basic pitfalls will make the evaluations more productive

Most company officers have responsibility for doing performance evaluations of their crew members. This makes sense — who has a better read on the strengths and weaknesses of those firefighters than someone who works with them every shift?

Yet many fire officers admit that they dread doing performance evaluations. They often say they feel unprepared for handling this task. Sometimes they make mistakes that can derail the entire process.

There are many factors that can contribute to success or failure when doing performance evaluations. Officers should be specifically trained for this function before taking it on. The system in place should make sense and include transparency so that ratings over time are consistent. Departmental leaders should model good practice in this area.

But even when intentions are good and officers are basically prepared, there are a number of potential pitfalls that can occur. Here are five avoidable errors in the performance review process.

Don't hurry
The performance evaluation process takes time to work well, and should never be rushed. Don't schedule this conversation 15 minutes before you have an appointment for an inspection or a station tour. Leave the time for it open-ended.

Avoid distractions
Put away your cell phone or iPad. Turn off the TV. Allowing your attention to wander when doing a performance evaluation is disrespectful and has the effect of shutting down any feedback you might get from the other person. Do the evaluation in a quiet, private place where both of you can sit down and feel comfortable.

State a positive intention, but don't avoid real issues
Some people like to use the "sandwich" model of giving feedback. In this model, you say something positive, then give more critical feedback, then end on a positive note.

There is nothing wrong with this approach in theory, but in practice, someone who is not comfortable with giving feedback could easily focus too much on the beginning and end of the model and avoid being clear about the issues that need to be addressed.

Consider this example: You say to your firefighter, "Chris, you're a terrific person and we all like working with you. You've been a great addition to this team and I really appreciate your sense of humor. Sometimes it does seem like you joke around when the rest of the crew is working. But you're so smart and funny, I see tremendous potential for you in your career."

In this example, it would be easy for Chris to hear, "Terrific person, well liked, smart and funny, tremendous potential" and gloss over the heart of the matter — that you wish Chris would take work assignments a bit more seriously.

Avoid the use of absolutes
Avoid saying, "you always" or "you never." It is easy to want to generalize about patterns of behavior, but be careful. It is rare that someone is so consistent that they always or never do something.

If you comment on behavior in absolute terms, the person listening is likely to become defensive and want to argue the case. "I don't always do that — just last week, I didn't do it." You want to have a real conversation, not start an argument. Instead of making sweeping generalizations, focus on specific actions.

Focus on behaviors, not personality
Some performance evaluation forms have a category for the officer to rate attitude. More than one firefighter has been told in this process that he or she "just doesn't fit in." But what do either of these statements really mean?

Telling someone he or she doesn't "fit in" says nothing more than "you're not like us." Telling firefighters they have a bad attitude will be interpreted as "People don't like you." Neither of these statements has any value in the performance evaluation process.

Instead, focus on specific behaviors. If a firefighter is having trouble getting along with others in the station, exactly what has he done that has created friction among the crew? If an engineer is perceived as not a team player, exactly what has she done that alienates her from the crew? Talk about specific events, and make sure you have your examples ready before you initiate the performance review process.

Doing good performance evaluations isn't easy. Officers need ongoing training to do well in this role. Part of the training should be conversations among officers so that evaluations can be normed to a consistent standard. The system itself needs to be evaluated and modified as needed to meet changing needs on the department.

But there are a few things that every officer can do to maximize the effectiveness of the process. Attending to a few guidelines can make the process go better for everyone involved.

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