Make staff evaluations more manageable

Fairness is mandatory but hard to achieve. And many technical managers feel less than
confident about their writing ability for anything longer or more formal than e-mail.


Performance appraisal software helps strengthen both of these weaknesses. Online guides
and integrated performance logs provide data for balanced evaluations, and with a
step-by-step approach, the software organizes and helps document the reports.


The products reviewed here, all in use at federal agencies, work differently but share
certain features. They all help a manager weigh such performance factors as organizational
skills and responsibility.


A manager rates an employee on those factors on a scale from poor to excellent-actual
rating nomenclature varies. The program then displays sentences and paragraphs that
reflect the rating. This text can be moved into the appraisal document that the program
automatically organizes.


The products have built-in word processors for editing appraisals. They generally
prompt the manager to paste in an employee log with specific examples of behaviors and
conversations with the employee.


The finishing touches are spell-check, grammar-check and legal-check. Legal-checker
finds any words that may reveal bias, such as pregnant, overweight or old.


The programs can be used as-is or customized for a particular organization with certain
boilerplate factors or phrases.


They have templates for different types of jobs and performance factors.


Performance Now 3.01 for Microsoft Windows 3.x, used at IRS and the Office of
Thrift Supervision, comes with five templates: management, clerical, production,
sales/service and universal. The performance factors in the management template include
such things as job knowledge, initiative, adaptability and organization.


When you select a performance factor to work on, you see specific review elements. For
example, under the factor organization, you can rate an employee on elements such as
"sets goals and objectives," "works in an organized manner" and
"plans for additional resources."


You rate each element on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high) or as not applicable. If you
select 1 on "prioritizes and plans work activities," the program displays the
sentence "Mary does not prioritize or plan her work satisfactorily." If you
choose a middle-of-the-road 3, the sentence is "Mary generally plans and prioritizes
well."


As you proceed through each of the six review elements under Organization, the program
adds sentence after sentence, eventually creating a coherent paragraph at the bottom of
the evaluation window.


Click on Copy to Form, and the paragraph transfers to the appraisal form.


You move through the evaluation by sequentially clicking folder tabs at the top. When
you've worked through all the performance factors, you can click on the Current Goals tab
to rate the employee on how well goals laid out in previous evaluations were met. Click on
Future Goals to enter new ones.


The Plans for Improvement section contains phrases such as "analyze who might need
to be kept informed" and "anticipate what questions might be asked." Any
items you click on here will appear in the appraisal document.


All the packages give suggestions on how to compose your conclusions, but Performance
Now is the only one that automates this process. When you click the Summary tab, the
program first calculates the average rating for all the performance factors and goals. It
then displays an overall rating both as a phrase-for example, "meets job
requirements" or "needs improvement"-and as a number.


Next it displays suggested conclusions under headings such as "unsatisfactory
(similar to last review)," "unsatisfactory (previously rated higher
inappropriately)" or "outstanding (improved from last review)."


When you select the heading that reflects your overall evaluation, the program displays
a series of short paragraphs from which you make selections for the conclusion section of
the appraisal form.


Although this certainly is helpful as a guide, the program cautions that you should
customize the suggested summaries in your document.


After you've worked your way through all the tabs, close the folder window. Now the
appraisal document appears, ready for editing with Performance Now's rudimentary word
processor.


Performance Now is easy to use and customize. Its file folder interface walks a user
easily through the evaluation process, and its emphasis on goals should help shape an
employee's progress.


AMS/3 for Windows 3.x, Windows 95 and Windows NT also is used by some IRS
managers. It's a good choice if you need some help writing a performance appraisal report.
It's the only one of the products with a QuickBuild feature to guide you through the whole
thing.


The first QuickBuild screen asks whether you want to create a new report or work on an
existing one. After you click Next, you select an employee name or enter a new one.


AMS/3 has seven templates, including project team leader, maintenance worker and a
generic template. As you click your way through QuickBuild, the performance factors appear
one at a time.


Each has three review elements, which you rate on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high). For
example, one review element under the performance factor Cost Awareness is "finds
ways to control costs without impairing quality."


If you assign a 1 to that element, the program displays, in part, "John seems
insensitive to the cost of materials." If you assign a 5, the text includes
"Strongly committed to managing costs effectively."


AMS/3's rating section is more sophisticated than the other programs' rating tools. If
you rate one review element high and a second low, AMS/3 won't display one laudatory and
one critical sentence. Instead, all the sentences will change to reflect your ambivalence.


Performance Now, in contrast, merely puts a word such as "however" between
the sentence about a high rating and the sentence about a low one.


After rating each performance factor, you get an opportunity to access the employee's
performance log, from which you can paste in specific examples to support your evaluation.


Like Performance Now, AMS/3 lets you select ideas for improvement that automatically
appear in the document. However, it doesn't automate writing the summary.


Because of its QuickBuild feature, AMS/3 is the easiest of the products to learn. If
you use Avantos' other management product, ManagePro, you can import goals, notes and
progress data from ManagePro to AMS/3.


Employee Appraiser 3.0 for Windows 3.x and Apple Macintosh presents a choice of
short phrases from which to select rather than a rating scale.


First you choose a performance element to work on, such as job knowledge. Next you
indicate your overall evaluation of meeting or exceeding expectations or needing
improvement. Then the program displays several phrases that reflect that overall
evaluation.


For example, if you choose Exceed, you see phrases such as "expert knowledge of
job" and "skilled with equipment." If you choose Improve, the phrases
change to "needs help with equipment" and "inadequate technical
knowledge."


The phrase or phrases you select appear in the text instead of a numerical rating. If
you select the phrase "inadequate technical knowledge," the program displays a
paragraph that begins "Fred sometimes lacks the technical knowledge needed for his
position."


You can fine-tune the wording with the plus and minus buttons. The plus button changes
"sometimes" to "occasionally," and the minus button changes it to
"frequently." These phrases are equivalent to numeric ratings, but many find
that selecting a phrase representing their attitude is a more natural way to evaluate than
using numbers.


Employee Appraiser's interface differs from those of the other products in a big way.
With it, the rating work occurs with pull-down menus and other tools at the top of the
word processor, which also shows the appraisal document. This lets you see and easily edit
your document as it grows, paragraph by paragraph.


Employee Appraiser has the best word processor of all. It has more formatting tools
than the other products, and it's the only one with an Undo function-a great time-saver.


Also, this is the only program in which the word processing functions are accessible by
tool bar. You can customize the tool bar with icons that are the same as in Microsoft
Word, Corel WordPerfect or Lotus Ami Pro.


Employee Appraiser has the most templates: 11. But you're not limited to the
performance factors in each template because you can access all 30 performance factors in
the program by clicking on More.


Employee Appraiser cannot enter suggestions automatically, but it has something better.
Its Coach gives suggestions for improvement that you can pass on to the employee.


If your employee has problems with attendance, the Coach can offer suggestions on how
to reorganize work routines. Cut and paste the Coach sections into your appraisal document
or use it as a guide for conversations with the employee.


Employee Appraiser is in use at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the Executive
Office of the President, NASA and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.


Unlike performance appraisal programs that create reports, Intelligent Consensus
gathers information from multiple sources to put into an appraisal document. It's for a
team of evaluators, not just a single manager.


Its 360-degree feedback, or multirater, methodology has two big advantages over the
conventional assessment process. First, an evaluation probably will be more accurate
because it isn't based on a single person's opinion. Second, the employee is more likely
to take seriously an evaluation by several peers.


Intelligent Consensus is in use at the Energy and Education departments and the U.S.
Army Engineering and Support Center in Huntsville, Ala. It provides a relatively easy
template to select respondents, collect data and produce reports.


The program comes with a people database and a criteria database that have questions
that can be placed in a survey. To create a survey, you click on the names of the
evaluators and then select the criteria.


The program outputs a copy of the survey for each evaluator on disk or paper or to
e-mail. Each rater responds to the questions using a numeric scale and optional freeform
text. Once all the data is collected, the program creates a report with a composite rating
for each criterion.


Intelligent Consensus gives you a lot of control over the survey and the report. You
can identify people by categories, making it easier to select different types of raters.
You can define factors, which are groups of related criteria, and you can specify the
weight each criterion or each respondent type will have in the overall score.


The graphical interface is attractive, and functions are easy to access with buttons
and pull-down menus. But there's no walk-through help for setup or for creating the
survey.


The documentation is inadequate. Details about how to perform each activity are
complete, but nowhere are all the steps spelled out concisely. This program would benefit
from a quick-start section in the manual or on screen.


Another problem is that, although the manual explains how to do things, it often
doesn't point out why you'd want to do them.


Under the heading Set Weight for Respondent Type, you read, "Weights are
multipliers that can be assigned to respondent types, affecting how much the composite
score is influenced." But there's no explanation for why you would assign varying
weights.


Intelligent Consensus is a client-server package for organizations with 100 to 10,000
employees, who receive feedback from others. The software is priced on a per-subject
basis.


Insight Profiles, a non-networked version, is for organizations with up to 300 users
and is priced at $99 for the first user and $50 for each additional user.



Larry Stevens is a free-lance reviewer and Mac enthusiast in Monson, Mass.


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