Evaluations that work

Features - Cover Story

Effective performance reviews create career ladders and foster accountability.


The annual sit-down. The 30-day checkup.

Employee evaluations can get a bad rap when they’re delivered TPS-report style – think the movie Office Space and a stuffy room with The Bobs. How motivating is it to hear about everything that didn’t go right? And owners struggling to retain employees might hesitate to even go there.

But done well, employee reviews can empower team members to worker harder, smarter and toward the company’s goals. Plus, they don’t have to be as traditional as the old sit-down.

For example, weekly truck checks are one important component to reviewing employees’ commitment to Peak Landscape’s core values, as a landscape maintenance firm focused on professionalism. While a clean truck might not directly impact the curb appeal of a client’s property, it does set a precedent for being respectful, responsible and accountable – and those are qualities that clients look for in a service provider, points out president Brian Connors.

“We make sure our guys clean their trucks at least weekly – wipe them down, vacuum,” says Ryan O’Connor, operations manager, Peak Landscape, Truckee, Calif.

On weekends, O’Connor spends more time ensuring each truck is properly organized. “I go through the side bins, the racks and make sure trucks are stocked,” he says.

The truck checks are part of a 10-item checklist Peak Landscape covers on its employees’ performance reviews. Other bullet points include attendance, dedication, presentation (clean uniform), safety and communication. O’Connor and Connors assign a 1 to 10 rating to each key point. An end score is tallied and averaged during the season, and bonuses are paid out as a percentage of employees’ scores. So, if a crew member earns an average of 70 points, that’s 70 percent of the bonus potential.

“We keep good notes with dates, and that way if an employee says, ‘I was in uniform that day,’ we can identify the day he did not wear his uniform to work,” O’Connor notes, adding that documentation keeps evaluations constructive and detailed.

Plus, there are opportunities for employees to “make it right” and recover bonus dollars if mistakes happen, O’Connor says. “One employee yesterday pinched the taillight of her truck while backing up,” he says. “She came directly to me after work, very upset, and said, ‘I’m not going to get my bonus this year.’ She explained the situation and I said, ‘Let’s see if you can find a replacement on your own.’

Truck inspections done by O’Connor are tied into Peak’s employee performance reviews.

“The more employees can handle on their own, the less it will impact their bonuses,” O’Connor continues. “She is in the process now of handling it and asked me if she could get an extra 24 hours to check with another place to get the replacement. I’m fine with that.”

The effort shows accountability and commitment. “I’m more than willing to work with her,” O’Connor says.

Tying bonuses to employee evaluations emphasizes the importance of the company’s 10 expectations, Connors says. “It helps create a culture of accountability, and if we don’t have that culture and every truck is beat up and equipment is breaking in the field, that takes away from our professional image,” he says.

Performance reviews create career ladders for employees – and they encourage accountability. Consistent evaluations help team members know where they stand. Companies that establish a system for reviewing performance and stick with it see results: more productivity, better quality work and, ultimately, higher profitability.

“Reviews are for the good of the team,” Connors says.

Setting Expectations.

“No surprises” is the key to delivering performance reviews, Connors says. “Our employees are very aware of the process,” he says, noting that a structured schedule for reviews and the 10-point list of expectations keeps the process transparent.

In fact, understanding the review process is part of the employee orientation. “They see the 10 bulleted items and they know what will affect their bonuses,” Connors says. “When we do the initial paperwork at the beginning of the season that outlines their pay and bonus potentials, those 10 bullets are on the next page. Every season, we say, ‘This is a reminder of what you are evaluated on. These are the 10 things you need to focus on every day.’”

Ben Carruthers, owner of Carruthers Landscape Management in Dallas, Texas, introduces his review system to employees upon hiring when employees work through the training program. Employees are reviewed by their supervisors 30 days after their start date, and again after 90 days on the job. After this, team members receive annual reviews that address aptitude. “Their reviews are performance based: Did you meet the requirements? Did you exceed the requirements?” Carruthers says.

Managers at Carruthers Landscape Management are evaluated on how well they teach crew members – so, it’s all about listening and communication skills. And, Carruthers stays on top of reviews by making the task a checkpoint on his monthly Key Performance Indicators (KPI) spreadsheet, which he reviews and completes monthly.

Generally, review season begins in November at Carruthers Landscape Management after the landscape maintenance schedule slows down. “We rely on the performance evaluations to give us a chance for employees to know what they can work on and accomplish if they come back the following season,” he says.

Ultimately, executing reviews requires collaboration and organization. That’s why Kyle Germann of Green Lawn Specialists in Lewis Center, Ohio, first meets with the HR manager and employees’ supervisors to discuss employees’ performance. “We make the evaluation, and we also try to include everyone in the review when we bring in the employee to discuss it,” he says.

Employees at Green Lawn Specialists are reviewed 30 days after they are hired, and a pay raise is tied to performance at this point. If a worker is falling short, the review will highlight issues to resolve to earn the pay raise. “We say, ‘Here are the things that are holding you back, and if you can get this done, we can move forward,’” Germann says.

After the initial 30-day review, team members are evaluated at the end of the season. Germann keeps track of when reviews were delivered by maintaining a spreadsheet that lists employees names, current pay rate and pay history. The sheet also includes the date workers signed their employee handbooks and confidentiality agreement. And, one tab is dedicated to reviews so he can log dates and stay on track.

“We also make sure to look at our reviews every year to see if we need to make adjustments,” Germann says, relating that working with an outside consultant to build a review system helped create a framework and system for reviews, bonuses and pay increases. It’s all about consistency – and making sure everyone on the team knows where they stand.

“It’s critical for employees to know where they are at, because if they aren’t sure or have questions, that creates more anxiety for them,” Germann says.

Speaking Up.

A three-part list encourages thoughtful conversation during reviews at Green Lawn Specialists. “The most important part of the evaluation is on the back when we list what they should start doing, what they should stop doing and what they should keep doing,” Germann says.

For example, if a technician is working toward a foreman position, Germann might note that the crewmember should start practicing management skills and taking the lead – giving other workers helpful suggestions. And, under the “stop doing” category, attendance might be red flagged. “This particular technician had a problem with missing some days,” he says. As for keep doing, the employee has a great attitude and work ethic.

The point is to get employees to share their concerns and goals. “It’s not always easy to get employees to talk during employee evaluations, and a lot of times they won’t tell you there is a problem until it is too late to fix it,” Germann says. “This is why we make sure to give them opportunities to give feedback by asking open-ended questions.”

After reviewing the three questions, he might ask a technician, “How’s it going with the foreman?” Then, inquiries can move from specific to the bigger picture, such as, “Where do you see yourself in one year?”

Always, Germann works to keep the tone positive.

(Employee evaluation) helps create a culture of accountability, and if we don't have that culture and every truck is beat up and equipment is breaking in the field, that takes away from our professional image. ...we want to stay at the head of the pack." Brian Connors, president, Peak Landscape

“You always want to be careful with your negatives,” Germann says. “The biggest problem for some employees is taking constructive criticism.”

Providing that constructive feedback can be a challenge for supervisors and owners, Germann adds. “The main thing is to always be looking forward,” he says. “Here is what happened, here is what I would like to see, here is what we want to see moving forward.”

So, rather than focusing on the missed days of work, Germann will highlight the foreman opportunity and note that dependability and expected attendance are necessary to achieve the position. Rather than focusing on what the crewmember isn’t doing, the review touches on the point but explains how correcting those issues can result in more responsibility and the compensation that comes along with it.

Germann says the company has learned that employee evaluations must be specific. “If we tell an employee he is not being detail-oriented enough, we’d get the feedback, ‘Where?’ and, ‘When did I not pay attention to detail?’ So, we make sure we outline exactly which job it was and what happened.”

So, maintaining records is essential so reviews can be informative, constructive and pinpoint exactly what employees should address to achieve goals. “If a worker’s efficiency is below average, we show them the numbers that explain how and why,” Germann says.

Extras for Effort.

Employees who meet job expectations at Carruthers Landscape Management earn a wage, but those who go above and beyond get a bonus check. Carruthers says the quarterly incentive can range from $300 to $600. Salaries are adjusted based on performance and skills. As employees advance, they win opportunities to enhance their pay. “The bonus program is in addition to that,” he says.

The company has worked through some trial and error to find a bonus system that’s fair and consistent. At first, Carruthers offered bonuses annually. “But that didn’t work because you can be a hero one year and then the second year, you’re just OK, and the third-year performance tended to decline,” he says.

Basically, many employees simply weren’t getting a carrot often enough to stoke their appetite for excelling beyond the standard. So, Carruthers tried a “goal card” system that require rating employees on various factors. “But the ratings could depend on how you felt when you woke up in the morning and who you talked to before you showed up at a meeting,” he says.

"It's critical for employees to know where they are at, because if they aren't sure or have questions, that creates more anxiety for them." Kyle Germann, Green Lawn Specialists

A “yes” or “no” system worked better – did employees fulfill expectations or not? Employee performance based on set standards is figured monthly. But bonuses are paid out quarterly. “That way, you could earn the bonus two months and not get it the third, but the poor month would get cancelled out,” Carruthers says. This system provides more flexibility for supervisors and branch managers.

Tying bonuses to performance is an important motivator, Connors adds. “If we were to just do a review and not have it tied to a carrot, I think the evaluation would be taken differently,” he says, explaining why Peak Landscape adopted its point system. Also, he says that employees who tend to earn 70 percent of their bonus or less tend to weed themselves out, which helps the company’s overall performance.

“Employees know they need to work hard throughout the year to get the bonus,” Connors says. And, that hard work has made the company more successful, he points out. “With the accountability, it has helped get us a more professional image.” L&L