So You Hate Rating Your Workers?

Ask most bosses to compile a list of what they like least about their jobs, and writing performance reviews surely ranks up there with handing out pink slips and filing expense reports. Yet good managers recognize the importance of regular appraisals to clue in the troops on how they've been faring and to motivate them to perform better. What's more, written reviews can supply documentation if a fired employee brings a wrongful-dismissal suit.

This explains the recent arrival of three software programs that aim to smooth the way for managers through job-evaluation duties. Review Writer from Avantos Performance Systems, Employee Appraiser from Austin-Hayne, and Performance Now for Windows from KnowledgePoint all mesh with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows and offer advice on how to conduct reviews. Bosses can also use the software to log notes on their people.

JARGON-RIDDEN. When supervisors rate employees on a series of performance traits, each program generates written text that can be "pasted" directly onto an evaluation form and printed out. The programs contain word processors that encourage managers to edit portions of the text or to embellish it with examples of the employee's track record. Unfortunately, many of the writing samples were too simple, repetitious, or bogged down in human-resource jargon.

Of the three programs, Review Writer produced the most stilted text. When rating a salesperson on the broad category of "influencing others," one suggested comment was: "Richard is ineffective at preventing the polarizing of positions during discussions, so he does not ensure that discussions remain objective."

Review Writer's main virtue is that it makes setting up an appraisal relatively easy. First, users choose from a list of predefined templates designed for different jobs such as administrator or clerk. Managers type in goals they would like addressed and select from categories--professionalism, leadership, job knowledge--to be included. Managers grade employees by applying ratings (strongly disagree, strongly agree) to statements that appear.

Employee Appraiser was a bit more difficult to use at the start, but I found most of the program's writing samples far more intelligible. Managers can click on a list of evaluation topics--communication, initiative, planning--that they want to appear on the review. Unlike the other programs, Employee Appraiser doesn't use a rating scale. Instead, statements under the various topics are followed by bullet points, each of which corresponds to a different text block. Managers pick the text they feel best describes the employee. Under the sentence "Keeps up-to-date with new developments," one suggested comment reads: "Cathy usually keeps up-to-date on new developments in her field by reading, attending seminars, and maintaining contacts with colleagues."

Performance Now offered a nice blend of the two programs: more concise writing than Review Writer and easier to use than Employee Appraiser. As with the others, managers can select among predesigned forms or customize their own. One feature: If you give a low grade, a warning box appears urging you to add supporting details in case the ranking is challenged. All three programs include spelling and language checkers that automatically search for "inappropriate" words or phrases that might cause legal hassles. The language checker in Performance Now flagged "pretty."

No matter how successful any of the programs are at motivating managers to prepare evaluations, bosses can't hide behind the computer when it's time to deliver the results. But the programs can help them think about how to offer face-to-face appraisals in a more constructive fashion. Maybe then the whole process won't be so unpleasant after all.

      Program/Publisher       List price
      AUSTIN-HAYNE                 $129
      AVANTOS                      $129
      KNOWLEDGEPOINT               $169
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