The annual tax season generally takes only one-fourth of the work year, and for all of the preparation required may seem to be over in a few short weeks after it begins. Temporary staff is let go, the paperwork is all wrapped up and it is time for that well-earned vacation.
All of which makes it difficult to make time for the management responsibility most critical to the success of the firm – the employee performance evaluation. Which also means that the evaluations that do get done tend to be informal, short, and built on the question of who will stay on after tax season, who will be re-hired for next year, and who will be let go after April 15. The subject becomes even trickier for those who will not be invited back, since you may not wish to present that information until the season is over.
There is a misconception that an employee evaluation only covers what the individual does right or wrong – a kind of report card for grown-ups. If done properly, however, it should yield far more useful information about the firm and its operations:
- Where the bottlenecks are in the tax workflow process.
- What tools (hardware, software, office furniture, etc.) proved most helpful and effective.
- What tools are missing that should be evaluated for next year.
- Find the employees who are the most productive. This isn’t necessarily the fastest preparer of returns – the most productive employee may take more time per return, but has fewer errors that require corrections and multiple reviews.
- How well the pre-season orientation and training prepared them for the job.
- Ideas to improve the practice.
- Ideas for marketing the firm.
- Lessons the individual has learned over the course of the tax season.
- How the individual rates you as a manager. This is, obviously, a disconcerting part of the process and one that many managers are loathe to pursue. On the other hand, it may provide invaluable feedback that may result in better staff performance and higher profits.
Given all of these possibilities, what are the simplest ground rules for how to conduct an effective employee evaluation? Here are 10 rules to start the process:
- Start the process the day after the individual is hired. From that point on, make note about the things each employee does well over the course of the 10-week tax season, and those that are not done particularly well or need improvement.
- Use a formal evaluation process. This includes preparing a form with standard questions to be asked, and a second form the employee may use to rate your performance, to be placed in a suggestion box or other confidential place. Allocate a set time for each evaluation, usually 30 minutes, and stick to the schedule so as not to take too much of your time – or the employee’s.
- Begin with a short summary. Take the first few minutes of the evaluation to summarize overall performance before getting into specifics.
- Keep it confidential. There is no reason anyone else in the office should know what is on an employee’s evaluation. If the contents of an evaluation are discussed with other staff members, it will destroy much of the value of the evaluation as employees are hesitant to be open and honest. The only exception to this rule is to discuss each employee with other partners or managers who may have valid input to make.
- Keep it professional. It is only human to like some staff members more than others. But even an employee you are less keen about may be a strong asset to the firm. The process should be measured, calm and devoid of your emotions, to the maximum extent possible.
- Make sure you are understood. An evaluation is less valuable if the employee does not understand the point you are making. Pause frequently to ask if the employee understands, and answer any questions they might have before moving on.
- Keep it legal. It is difficult to keep pace with changes in human resources law, and your time is better spent running the firm. Clear the process, forms and other details of the evaluation through your attorney or human resources consultant to ensure you are compliant. One example – the term “laid off” has a specific legal definition and legal guidelines you need to be aware of.
- Give facts, not opinions. Voicing opinions opens the door for the employee to argue a point, and may waste time in pointless discussion of who is right. The easiest way to do this is to tie each of the evaluation points to the mission and goals of the firm. An unkempt work space, for example, may cause a client to doubt how well his or her return will be prepared, and could result in the loss of that client in future years.
- Involve the employee in the evaluation. Asking an employee to list their worst and best performance traits will yield little useful information – it is hard to be honest about our own faults. Instead, ask the employee to list the task they like to perform best, which one they like the least, and what they would like to improve upon in the future.
- Have the employee sign and date the finished evaluation. Make it clear that the signature does not signify agreement, but rather that the employee did have an evaluation. This is part of the documentation that is used as the basis of termination or bonuses.
Employee evaluations need not be a laborious waste of time, even for the smallest of firms. With a little advance planning, they can provide essential marketing and management information to boost morale, productivity and profits.