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By Bradley Hunt, Attorney at Law

If you are like many supervisors, preparing and delivering annual employee reviews is not on your list of favorite things to do! That said, regular performance reviews are important, and how they are handled matters.

Reviews are important to employees

Employees want and need feedback, and regular communication with individuals and teams can help improve the work environment. Knowing what they are doing well and where they need to improve can make employees feel the employer cares about their success with the company. While an annual review is standard for many companies, you should give feedback regularly. It can be hard to remember what happened eight months ago, so an informal monthly or quarterly review may be helpful to both the employer and employee. If an employee’s action requires correction or discipline, handle that immediately and be sure to document any corrective measures that need to be taken.

Individuals should know up front what their job duties are and understand the employer’s performance expectations. Written job descriptions can provide guidance to employees and protect employers if there are questions about duties or salaries. A well-written employee handbook can define high-level expectations related to conduct (tardiness, vacation, procedures to report a workplace injury, etc.) and spell out discipline procedures, including actions that would result in immediate termination. This handbook can protect both parties and help ensure all employees are treated the same.

Reviews can protect employers

Employment in North Carolina is “at will,” meaning an employee can be terminated without cause. While there are some exceptions to “at will” employment, we usually recommend employers have some structure to document all disciplinary actions up to terminations. From a performance perspective, this may include a process of an oral warning, written warning with an improvement plan, and a set time limit before the employee is terminated. If layoffs are required, document the basis for reduction in force and how employees were selected for inclusion in the layoff.

Periodic reviews – put in writing and kept in the employee’s permanent file – can help document performance over time, as well as confirm the employee is aware of the employer’s concerns. The reviews should:

  • Be in writing, signed and dated. The employee should sign or initial the document noting that the review has been received (even if they disagree with the contents of the review).
  • Use standard evaluation criteria by job. Typically, you will have a set of criteria that are general (absenteeism, getting along with co-workers, etc.) and a set for each job that evaluates specific task performance. These criteria should be based on the requirements in the job description and set forth those tasks which the ER deems “essential functions” of the job.
  • Be objective and fair. As a supervisor, you may not like all employees equally. Set that aside and simply evaluate the employee’s performance relative to the job duties. The same protections against discrimination apply to a review as when you hired the person. Avoid evaluating the employee on third-party statements you have not confirmed or from sources that will remain “anonymous.”
  • Criticize the behavior, not the person, and make feedback constructive. For example, for something that was not done correctly, provide guidance on how the employee could improve on that task.
  • Do not make any promises. This includes giving the employee specifics about a promotion or raise if it has not yet been approved by management or is dependent on future job performance.
  • If your process includes setting goals for the next review period (a good thing to add), make sure the goals are realistic, measurable, and the employee understands them.

Obviously, certain actions should result in immediate termination to maintain a safe work environment for everyone else. If you must terminate someone immediately, document what happened and get statements from others who witnessed the event.

Regular employee reviews are a vital part of running a sound business. If you have questions about how reviews should be conducted, or if an employee challenges a review and threatens legal action, speak to an employment law attorney.