March 16, 2018

Rethinking the Much-Dreaded Employee Evaluation | Leading from the Library

Steven BellThey may be a bit of a pain, but employee performance assessments have their place in continuous worker improvement. The question for leaders is, is there a better way to manage the process?

The end of June signals many things: The true start to the summer. Librarians headed off to the ALA Annual conference. The start of a new fiscal year. It’s also the time when we are getting evaluated by superiors or conducting evaluations of subordinates—or both. Despite efforts to make the process meaningful for both worker and supervisor, we still tend to regard performance evaluations as a necessary evil. For those working in higher education or government, as well as many in private industry, it’s often an eligibility requirement for raises or promotions. At my own institution, the most senior administrator and the entry-level clerk both submit to the same evaluation. Only faculty are exempt from the process. While the task is burdensome, I think workers value performance reviews and the opportunity to provide an accounting of their contributions and receive feedback from a supervisor. Still, there’s no dearth of complaining about annual employee evaluations. Some organizations and their leaders are questioning whether traditional approaches need rethinking so that employee evaluations can actually enable workers to improve their performance in ways that lead to organizational success.

What’s Your Rating?

Perhaps the most frustrating part of employee evaluations is determining rankings—or figuring out what they mean. I’m supposed to rate librarians on their ethics. How exactly does someone earn “significantly exceeds expectations”? Still, it’s an improvement over the old point system, where staff were rated on a scale of zero to four. Is an employee earning a 3.7 more ethical than one earning a 3.2? Even employee evaluations for dummies is barely helpful in figuring this out. I’ve evaluated staff using the most simplistic of paper forms and sophisticated electronic systems, and I’ve yet to figure out just exactly how we make sense out of some final overall ranking number or label. It’s the necessary evil of having to produce ratings that detracts from the benefits we can derive from the annual employee performance review system. What really matters is having a system for structured reviews and conversations that allow us to set goals, monitor progress, build strengths, and celebrate accomplishments. Leaders need to develop employee reviews that make sense and truly contribute to worker growth.

Search for Better Ways

Change may be on the way. More organizations, primarily in the corporate world, are looking for ways to ditch these questionable and not particularly meaningful rating systems. General Electric, often regarded as a personnel trend setter, is exploring shifting from one of the most elaborate and time-consuming evaluations to a far more streamlined system, and eliminating ratings. GE is not alone. In a March 2016 survey of more than 250 companies, about 16 percent said they had recently eliminated the use of a rating scale. Surprisingly, employees are sometimes reluctant to give up on the ratings for fear other systems will fail even more miserably at reflecting their performance. It’s a case of the devil you know is better than the one you don’t. The holy grail of employee performance review is some combination of features that emphasizes motivation and the ability to correct and improve performance while separating the process from an annual salary increase. Leaders need to help their organizations shape reviews that make sense for employees and supervisors.

Ideas for Change

There’s general agreement on the value of employee reviews as a designated process for leaders and staff to collaborate on individual and organizational planning. According to most research on employee performance evaluation, the problem is the ratings. Like library gate counts and book checkouts, ratings are easy metrics to collect and use for decision making, but yield little of real value that can help library workers boost their performance and achieve their goals. Performance management researchers David Rock and Beth Jones identified several reasons why employers are eliminating ratings:

  • As the nature of work changes and standard 9–5 weekday fades, a traditional once-a-year review makes less sense for employees who have more rapidly changing goals.
  • Too much competition and not enough collaboration: Reward systems with limited pools for merit pay increases cause workers to advance their own cause rather than those of the organization.
  • Ratings inhibit communication between supervisors and their reports. Removing them introduces more frequent conversations about professional development without the pressure of performance measures.

When Deloitte decided to rethink its employee ratings system, it did so knowing that managers and leaders lack any special ability for effectively rating workers. Its research indicated that ratings have far less to do with real performance and far more to do with the raters’ own tendencies for selecting ratings. Now, instead of rating employees, Deloitte asks supervisors to answer a set of questions about staff performance intended to provide feedback after projects are completed, to increase interaction between the rater and staff member, and to improve the responsiveness to staff development needs.

Can Leaders Make a Difference?

Enlightened leaders may realize that ratings-based performance evaluations are flawed and in need of change, but they may wield only limited capacity to create such change. In most organizations human resource departments control performance reviews and library leaders are given little, if any, discretion to deviate from standardized tools. Given new insights into the weaknesses of traditional rating systems for evaluating worker performance, armed with research results, it might be time for organizational leaders, across departments, to join together to establish a united front for rethinking performance review systems. Whatever new system is proposed needs to account for the concerns of ratings enthusiasts. How often will reviews happen? Will managers continue to spend enough time with employees? How will merit pay increases be tied to employee performance? What will motivate workers to perform at their best? All good questions, but if we hesitate to start on the path to rethinking employee evaluation, then we will all continue to contend with the frustrations of rating systems that do too little to deliver the performance review experience that library workers richly deserve.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.
Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.


  1. SimonSays says:

    Some benchmark of an evaluation – perhaps.

    Self evaluation as in the serve yourself up first is an exercise in looking into the mirror before the Sup. evaluate seems unnecessary.

    Perhaps this could all be simpler – as in Routine year – meeting needs of organization; skip review. Stellar year – as in we need to evaluate person/position in light of significant contribution-review for merit beyond call. Last the review of faltering to the organization clearly review is needed.

    Whatever the method; what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander – as in up the chain.

  2. While I agree with it, I’m interested in hearing more about your reasons why you feel that separating the review from the annual salary increase is part of the holy grail of performance reviews.

    • That is my take on what’s being said about rethinking employee evaluations in the literature and among those organizations that are looking at it from new angles. One thing that is frustrating for employees in many organizations is that the performance review is supposed to be connected to merit increases (e.g., the better my performance the better my raise is – and thus those who perform less well get less), but too often everyone in the organization gets the same 2% or 3% increase at one designated time per year. One of the interesting ideas I came across was tying merit increases to the accomplishment of specific projects and goals that might occur at multiple times through a performance review period. Salary increases could then be tied to the completion of goals – and not just at one time per year – but maybe at a certain point in the year everyone gets something – maybe 1% more. Like I said, there are lots of questions, but I was attracted to the topic because if there’s anything in our libraries that pretty status quo and not challenged, it’s employee evaluations – and there’s a discussion going on out there that challenges the status quo – so worth exploring.

  3. Mary Jo Finch says:

    Our public library moved away from the traditional review process in 2014. We had found that the annual rating system was stressful and demotivating to employees, that it did not offer reliable information since jobs are different and evaluators have biases, that it did not offer timely feedback, and that the feedback it offered only flowed one way (top down). The review process is integral to the overall work culture, and the culture we are trying to create is one that is goal-focused rather than rule-focused, that understands there is more than one way to do things, that encourages the development of decision-making skills, that promotes both autonomy and collaboration, and that expects a manager to be a partner in an employee’s growth.

    Most feedback at our library now happens in weekly or bi-weekly one-on-one meetings where the employee reports on what they are working on or have completed, what issues or questions have arisen in the week, and what their plans are for the coming week. This is an opportunity for the manager to offer praise as well as constructive feedback about changes needed, to coach the employee in skill development, and to add new goals or tasks to the employee’s plate.

    Beyond this we have quarterly check-ins, which are deeper conversations structured around a set of 10-12 probing questions (different each quarter). Each quarter has a particular focus: goal setting, job description review, goal progress (or revision), and accomplishments from the year. These conversations are largely driven by employees, offering them the opportunity to recognize their own achievements and contribute to a plan for their growth. The conversations are also hugely helpful in identifying systemic problems, planning for organizational progress, and recognizing employees who have shown extraordinary growth or achievement that might warrant a higher raise or increase in responsibility.