Thursday, April 11, 2013

30th Year Reflections/40: Performance Reviews

“Since my last report, this employee has reached rock bottom and has started to dig.” — purportedly written as part of a federal employee performance evaluation

I am in the midst of my annual performance review. For me, this time of year roughly equates to a visit with my dentist. But then, such a comparison would be unkind to my dentist. And it would be unkind to my supervisor as well. Both my dentist and my boss are great people. I am more than satisfied with my dentist and I enjoy working for my boss. I know that I will receive a fair, informative, and directive review from my supervisor. She will steer me right when (and where) I went wrong. We will have a meeting of the minds, agree on future goals and objectives, and map a course for the coming year. No, the issue has nothing to do with me and my immediate superior. It is more a question of timing. April, to quote T. S. Eliot, “is the cruellest month.”

It seems to happen to me every year, and always in April. For the past eleven months I will have chugged along at a fine clip, an occasional bump along the way, but nothing drastic. My performance will be fine, meeting expectations (for the most part) and doing what I am supposed to be doing. But then comes April. All at once, like some cruel joke, everything seems sabotaged, everything I thought I’d handled, smoothed out, delivered, or otherwise completed rears up and sneers “No, no, no you don’t. You didn’t do this, you forgot that, this is wrong, re-do that.” Maybe it has something to do with a phase of the moon. Maybe the conjunction of annual reviews and tax deadlines creates strange ripples in the time-space continuum. Maybe the “little people,” now wakeful after long winter naps, are feeling mischievous. I don’t know what the cause of this April sniping might be. All I know is that I’m not fond of April (except for the fact that it usually marks the beginning of baseball season).

I also will admit to a lack of fondness for the review process, although I understand and appreciate its value to me and the institution I work for. If the process is done well, if there are regular meetings to calibrate and adjust performance during the year, if final judgments are viewed as equitable and informed, then the process should be uneventful and relatively pain-free. When the final year-end evaluation takes place there should be no surprises. Each party—supervisor and supervisee—will have been in constant conversation over the last twelve months. Each will know the issues, understand the problems, chart progress, resolve questions, and document actions. The problem lies in our practice. For the most part, even though we may have created a well-defined map or protocol to guide the process, we rarely execute it to perfection. Meetings to touch base and adjust course will be missed or unscheduled. Conversations, questions, issues, or problems will remain unresolved. Lack of clarity, communication, and equitable standards will create problems. We end up with surprises, tension, and an unpleasant review experience.

Thankfully, I think we have a pretty good system. It is not without its faults, and questions continue to surface (e.g. how do you compare the work of an archivist or curator with catalogers, faculty liaisons, subject specialists, technologists, or other professional members of the staff?) In another week I’ll maybe know the answer to that question, or at least how I stack up in the eyes of my supervisor. I have documented my activities for the past twelve months. I have commented on how well (or poorly) I met the goals set for myself last year. I have linked my performance in specific areas to the expectations spelled out in my job description. My curriculum vitae is up-to-date, as is my job description. I’ve spelled out personal goals for the coming year. The immediate question is whether or not my goals help move me, my department, division, and enterprise forward in the next year. I’ll know the answer to that question next week as well. I’m hoping for no surprises and a pleasant experience. Just like a visit to the dentist.

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