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That yearly employee rating ordeal: Why not more instant feedback?

Employee appraisal -- it's one of those annual events that can make even the best and strongest employees quake in horror. For many workers, their job, salary, and possibly even tenure hinge on evaluation. They not only take the review seriously, they dread it for months.

The Levinson Institute, a management consulting group that deals with the psychological aspects of management, has studied the mental impact of an employee evaluation, or what thoughts the worker has before, during, and after his review.

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As a result, Dr. Harry Levinson, president of the Cambridge, Mass.-based firm , has become a crusader for better employee appraisal practices. The main source of trouble within the traditional appraisal system, he says, is that "the outcome of the behavior, rather than the behavior itself, is what is evaluated."

In general Dr. Levinson says that instead of being the once-a-year ordeal that evaluations are usually perceived as, employers should evaluate workers constantly, offering constructive criticisms or deserved compliments.

"But better feedback, coaching, and counseling are rarely undertaken by most companies," he says. "Most businesses are reluctant to change the yearly practice." Also, evaluations are usually relegated to personnel or human resources offices, rather than top management.

"The people who end up doing the evaluation feel guilty," Dr. Levinson contends. "They feel they are hurting the subject because it's not nice to criticize. So they avoid making evaluations as much as possible." As a result, they tend to maintain a cold, impersonal rapport.

Most employee evaluation forms are drawn up by industrial psychologists. These forms may consist of qualities with scale boxes beside them: subject's attitude toward fellow workers -- excellent, good, indifferent, or poor, for instance -- followed by such sweeping generalities as "List the person's strong points and weak points. Evaluate areas for improvement."

Dr. Levinson says these psychologists attempt to develop more complete dimensions for employees to be classified under -- quantitative rather than qualitative measurements. These broad standards are impersonal, as well as destructive, "because they don't offer specifics or real thought," he says. The manager filling out the forms, X's a few boxes, writes a quick comment, like Arnold J. is good with people, and that's all. No specific behavior, just personality abstractions.

Jeanne Greenberg, executive vice-president of Personality Dynamics Inc., job-matching specialists in Princeton, N.J., says prepared questionnaires are "too glib." The forms don't "hone in on the specifics of any job. How can any questionnaire that is so vague give a true picture of how an employee operates?"

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Dr. Frank McCabe, a partner in the New York consulting firm McCabe Morgan Associates Inc., agrees. "I've been in this business for 20 years," he says, "and the same problems come up every year -- how do you do an effective performance appraisal? The objective forms may be good for an assembly-line worker, or someone whose work is the same day after day, but once you get a position with responsibility, it is harder to define the job and, therefore, harder to say what is or isn't being done well."

Dr. McCabe reports that most appraisal programs are not cost-effective. "They just aren't worth the time and money."

Mrs. Greenberg is more concerned with another aspect of employee appraisal: as a means for uncovering the employees' feelings about a job and his suitability for the position.

"If you're not happy in a job, you don't want to wait a whole year to talk about it," she says. She advocates constant communication between subordinate and employer. However, she is glad that many companies give employee evaluations: "at least there is some interaction during the review. So many workers never even meet the top management."

Dr. Levinson's ongoing-appraisal practice would mean continuous attention by management to the performance of personnel, and continuous feedback. "This doesn't mean 'keeping book' on employees. Rather, critics should pay careful attention to employee problems and inform them, using constructive examples, of the kind of behavior suited to the company."

In general, employees are better off with concrete examples, such as, "On Aug. 1, Arnold J. insulted a client."

If Arnold J.'s boss could provide him with specific criticism soon after a disruptive incident, the worker would be much more aware of his wrong actions and, Dr. Levinson argues, more likely to correct them. This could also prevent the silent, potentially explosive fuming by both parties.

Many employees feel the annual criticism sessions are a personal grudge time. They believe employers store up on their mistakes all year until they get the opportunity to pour all their criticisms out. Dr. Levinson says this too could be avoided by prompt confrontation, using examples.

Dr. McCabe explains that employees should not feel they are being criticized; rather, they should be eager to hear how they are doing and what is expected of them. "Employees should want to do better in their jobs. The evaluations should tell them how to improve."

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