Worker Performance Appraisals Root Out Problems
The following has been reprinted from Quality Matters, the official e-newsletter of the NAHB Research Center's National Housing Quality (NHQ) program, and is courtesy of Business of Building e/Source.
While most employees can be fired “at will,” terminating someone is still a painful process — for management as well as the worker involved. Three keys to avoiding this outcome are:
- Making informed hiring decisions
- Training employees
- Making ongoing performance appraisal part of the way you do business
Even the smallest home building company, one with no employees except the principals, benefits from having a human resources management system that includes:
- A thorough vetting of contractors
- Detailed scopes of work
- Measurable performance goals
Clear expectations and training on the front end will help you avoid performance problems on the back end.
“I get a lot of questions from builders about performance problems that are really hiring problems or training problems,” says Janna Mansker of Organizational Development Associates, Atlanta. “Start with the right person in the job and in the first 90 to 120 days, set them up for success with training,” she advises.
For Michael Bosgraaf of Bosgraaf Homes, a small production builder in Holland, Mich., training has involved forging common ground with trade contractors on acceptable performance, then holding them accountable as a matter of practice — and — when it comes time for them to request a price increase.
Bosgraaf has only 22 employees, but thousands of trade contractors who are the face of Bosgraaf Homes to customers. He recognizes that the word-of-mouth advertising created by the way both employees and contractors behave and complete their work is even more important to the company’s marketing success than mass media.
Scopes of Work Matter
Therefore, once Bosgraaf and its trade contractors settle on price, by mutual agreement, their performance is judged by the service they deliver. Besides excellence in woodworking, for example, carpenters and other trade contractors are measured on:
- Timeliness — Jobs must be started within 72 hours and completed within an agreed-upon time frame.
- Respect — How do they treat others, including other trades, employees and, of course, the customer and the buyer’s property?
- Cleanliness — No smoking is permitted, no cigarette butts left in the yard; jobs must be left broom clean, for example.
- Safety — Boots and goggles are a must and no hazardous materials are to be left on site, for instance.
- Quality Assurance — Contractors are expected to complete a checklist prior to payment.
- Follow-Up — Is the customer happy? Would they send a referral to you?
Bosgraaf developed this measurement system in partnership with trades, who see day in and day out the problems caused by sloppy work, tardiness and lack of professionalism.
“We brought them into a room all at once, bought them lunch and asked them how they felt they should be judged by us,” Bosgraaf says. “Consistently, they voted that they should be judged on service.”
Three Components to Excellent Performance
Brenda VanderMeulen of River Hills Consulting in Holland, Mich., says employee and trade performance comprises three things:
- An individual’s skills
- What they accomplish
- How they do their work
“Means matter,” says VanderMeulen. So when you are hiring and training, be clear about the systems, policies and methods you expect your employees and others you work with to follow.
“People don’t fail in their jobs because they’re technically incompetent,” she says. Instead, it’s often their soft skills and behavioral issues that get in the way. Too often, behavior is not addressed in the job description or scopes of work, but workers and subcontractors need clear definitions of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
“Be very specific,” VanderMeulen says. “People need to know what you consider to be good work.” If you don’t define it, it will be difficult to measure it.
Employees Need Regular Feedback, Not Crisis Communication
Admittedly, Mansker says, performance measurement by a manager is based on a combination of both objective and subjective data. It is about “shaping” rather than “grading” behavior, she says, so managers should talk to their employees about what they are doing — both positive and negative — on a regular basis.
“You have to let people know what you expect of them,” says Jack VanderMeulen, president of VenderMeulen Builders. “Most people want to perform,” he says, and not just for money.
When reviews are handled on an annual basis, they tend to focus on the previous three months, simply because it’s difficult for a manager to recall anything about performance prior to that. As an alternative to ensure that you are capturing all of the data on employees that both of you need, Mansker suggests:
- Sit down once a week with your direct reports individually, allowing them to set the agenda.
- Go over their list of concerns and questions first, then yours.
- Identify positive observations about their work and areas that need improvement.
- Be very specific. For example, instead of saying, “Your work ethic needs improvement,” let them know that they have been turning in paper work late and with errors. Rather than telling them, “Your behavior is rude,” tell them, “You’re talking in a demeaning way to trades.” Be just as precise when discussing positive things they’ve accomplished on the job, so they understand exactly what you expect, and they will be empowered to keep doing it.
- Document employee performance and these conversations.
If you have these feedback conversations regularly, employees won’t be blindsided by a poor performance review; you’ll increase the likelihood of them improving their work; and you may save yourself from getting to the point where their job, or a significant incentive, such as a bonus, is in jeopardy. You’ll also have detailed records regarding employee performance that can be referred to in terminating someone or in rewarding them with a bonus.
“I have seen the turnaround in employees once they know what the expectation is,” Mr. VanderMeulen says. In addition, documentation has helped him save money in unemployment claims.
First, Hire the Right Person
One caveat, though. None of the above will work to improve employee performance if you hire someone whose hard wiring runs contrary to the expectations of the job. A good job description will tell you, for example, whether the type of person who would be a good fit is naturally detail-oriented, outgoing, an office person or a field person. Also, are you seeking an experienced person or an apprentice; a crew leader or a carpenter?
In the interview, ask specific questions about how a candidate performed in the past, rather than about hypothetical situations, in order to judge whether they would be a good fit for the opening you have.
In addition, set up good working relationships from the start by having the person you hire spend 20 to 30 minutes during their first week on the job with each of the people mentioned in their job description under “working relationships.”
For more information about scopes of work and performance management, e-mail Frank Alexander, NHQ programs director.
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