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A Performance-Appraisal Conundrum: What Would You Do?

by Dick Grote Add a comment

After 30 years of consulting, I thought I had run across every question regarding performance management. But a client recently came up with an intriguing query that I hadn’t encountered before.

Bob wrote:

Sometimes it happens in our business that a management employee may be involved in a significant incident immediately after the close of the annual performance appraisal cycle that impacts their performance rather negatively. This particular incident happened early in the month of April, right at the time that his manager was writing his performance appraisal. Since the incident was significant, the manager decided to include it in the performance review even though our standard performance review period is from April 1 to March 31.

The reason I ask about this is that the employee in question recently made a formal complaint protesting the fact that since our review period is from April 1 to March 31, and the incident happened in the second week of April, 2013, it never should have been discussed or even considered in the 2013 performance appraisal. The manager, he argued, should have waited until she wrote his 2014 performance appraisal a year from now to raise the issue on the performance review.

Do you know if this is a standard or common practice with other companies? How should this be handled? Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

I wrote back telling Bob that I don’t know of any company that has a formal “rule” or even a clearly understood guideline on how to handle this kind of unusual situation. But, I told him, I know exactly what I’d do.

If the individual’s manager came to me for advice, I’d advise her to handle it exactly as was done in the incident he described. Include it in the performance appraisal for the April, 2012 – March, 2013 period, even though the incident happened a week or two or three after the end of the appraisal period. Appraisal periods are always arbitrary, and in this case it happened close enough to the 4/1 – 3/31 period to make it justifiable to include it, particularly since it was a “significant incident.”

The purpose of the performance review is to provide the employee with the manager’s opinion of the employee’s performance, based on that performance over the past year. This incident is certainly on the manager’s mind, and it would be a mistake of serious obfuscation to force the manager to wait 12 months to include it in a review. In that 12 month period the impact of the incident will have either totally been forgotten, or the seriousness of it will have been lost in the fog of faulty memory (which is precisely what the employee is hoping for). Why let that happen?

I’m also concerned, I told Bob, about the character of an individual who raises the smokescreen of, “This didn’t happen until immediately after the close of the appraisal period so you can’t use it against me.” What kind of employee—particularly a management employee—does a response like that suggest that we’re dealing with? Certainly not one I’d want on my team.

So I say, go ahead and include it. There’s no question about the fact that it happened and it needs to be part of the record.

Incidentally, I pointed out to Bob, the reverse is also true. If an employee does something in early April that represents a singularly remarkable achievement, I sure wouldn’t wait 12 months to include it in the performance review. And I doubt that any individual would complain that her boss included a reference to medal-of-honor-worthy performance in her performance appraisal, even though this particular triumph happened a week after the appraisal period closed.

About the Author

Dick Grote is a management consultant in Dallas, Texas and the author of the new book, How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals, published by the Harvard Business Review Press in July 2011.