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A Simple, Effective Approach to Performance Calibrations

Today, I'd like to offer you a simple, effective method to conduct performance evaluation calibrations. It will seem overly simple. Try it anyways. The tricky point in the process is not in the tool that you use, but in how you facilitate the discussion. A simple process strives to make room for you to help managers focus solely on performance. The hard part (there's always a hard part): Accountability for managers in sticking with the calibrated ratings once it's time to have the conversation with employees.

What is a Performance Calibration?

First, let's talk about what a performance calibration is and why it's a helpful resource to have in your talent development tool belt.

Performance calibrations are organized sessions that a talent professional hosts with managers who oversee similar positions to discuss the performance of employees in those positions. They can be organized for similar roles or levels within a department or arranged to discuss a particular role cross-functionally. Your approach will typically depend on the size of your organization. As a few examples: all managers within the Finance department, all system engineers within IT or all analysts within the company.

The goal of performance calibration is to ensure that managers are applying the performance evaluation rating scale equitably. Inevitably, because we are human, some managers on the team will be harder or easier graders than others. That's ok. That's why you require managers to attend the performance calibration and then share the results with the department or functional leader for one final dose of accountability.

Optimal timing for a performance evaluation calibration discussion is just before assigning ratings, merit or bonuses for the year. The calibration should be to review performance within a set timeframe, such as the year prior.

The topic of a performance calibration should be singularly focused on performance. It's not a talent review. Which takes us to the next point.

Keeping Calibrations Simple

In the past I've conducted calibrations with a previous talent review or nine-box discussion as the starting point. But you know what happened? The same thing that happens in the talent review - managers get hung up on assigning their employees to a box. Waste of time. The magic of a talent discussion? The discussion. So, during a time at Southwest when we were thinking fresh about performance appraisals, we also began to simplify other talent processes, including the performance calibration.

The performance calibration make-over stripped away the potential component of the discussion so that we could focus solely on performance. We included a single grid for performance. Further, instead of asking managers to prepare and pre-rate direct reports in preparation for the meeting, we began everyone in the middle. It didn't matter where they were in the last talent review rating, we began everyone in the same pack.

In preparation for the meeting, managers were asked simply to review quarterly check-in and performance notes and be prepared to discuss their folks with specific demonstrated examples of behaviors, capabilities and results.

We touched on each name on the list and managers provided input on any individual that was not performing with the "pack." Solid reasoning and consensus was needed to move them "above the pack" or "below the pack."

If you find that everyone on the list is outstanding or exceptional or whatever your highest rating is, that's your new "pack." I don't advocate for forced distributions, but I do advocate that you keep the bell curve in mind. I keep it as an overlay, and when you see more folks in "above the pack," then we begin to talk about what performance standards are and realign with the performance ratings. If everyone is exceeding expectations, then that's your new "meeting expectations," or pack.

Other benefits of this format: shorter meetings and less bias. Managers brought behavioral examples for demonstrated performance and the team weighed in. It cut out favorite employees that weren't actually delivering. Managers collected a stronger 360° view of an employee's performance and decisions were more equitable. The senior leader of the group also got a view into which of her/his managers needed coaching on thinking critically about performance management. (I've not yet had to coach anyone on lightening up on performance ratings when it comes down to actually assigning the ratings. Huh.) And we typically wrapped in half the time of previous calibrations.

Facilitation Savvy

The challenging part of this process outside of the accountability needed for managers to stick with the ratings, is your role as the facilitator. In this SHRM article, David Grote with Grote Consulting* relays, "The facilitator’s role is to make sure that ratings managers have data, not just favorable or unfavorable views.” Your call is to ensure that when managers are proposing moving some above or below the pack that they have specific, demonstrated examples or proven results to support the recommendation.

You'll also have to call managers back to the defined rating scale to ensure that the ratings are being assigned equitably. I like this advice from a recent Deloitte article: "Every time you have a strong sentiment toward a worker—positive or negative—revisit performance criteria and validate that the sentiment is based on tangible evidence, not instinct or inclination." While this feedback is encouragement for managers, it holds true for the calibration discussion as well. It's your role to suss out those strong feelings and ensure that the manager and group are applying equitable criteria.

In sessions with new managers or a new team, a 10-minute discussion at the beginning of the session to talk about what "meeting expectations," or whatever that rating is for your scale, is quite beneficial for alignment.

In the same SHRM article, Grote also recommends setting ground rules and creating an environment where participants hold each other accountable. You also want to create an environment of open dialogue and discussion. You'll want to brush up on your facilitation skills if you're rusty, to ensure you can engage the quiet folks in the room and redirect those that try to dominate.

For those who would appreciate a step-by-step guide with handy instructions, even to setting the meeting agenda, Karen Caruso with viaPeople, shares a detailed guide on hubspot. If you find it helpful, give her a high-five.

Reinforcing Accountability

Finally, the toughest part of the process oftentimes is the accountability managers need to actually assign the rating when it comes time. We all shy away from the hard conversations, and managers will be tempted to go the easy route and enter a higher rating into the HR system. You likely have a good idea of which managers will cave to that temptation easily. Be sure to coach them before ratings or merit are due. Help them formulate talking points and role play the meeting they'll have with an employee. Ensure the department or senior leader knows where the calibration landed, and give her/him a heads-up, too. They are the ultimate accountability-holders.

It's about that time to begin planning for performance calibrations, whether you conduct them before performance appraisals are due or prior to merit application. Put some thought into simplifying your approach to really lean in to the conversation. After all talent is a conversation.


*David Grote, per his website, has recently retired. His website lives on with videos, articles and other resources. His specialty was performance management. Huzzah!

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