Evaluating Employee Performance

By Rich Marinucci

The leaders and managers of fire departments should always be striving to improve the performance of employees. This business remains labor-intensive, and the capabilities of the organization are directly tied to how the firefighters do their jobs. There are many contributing factors to job performance including the individuals themselves and their desire to seek improvement and quality service delivery. There are things that management can do to improve the work environment that allows employees to focus on their own job responsibilities. A couple of them are annual reviews and awards programs. I am not a big fan of the former and believe the latter is very beneficial, especially if operated properly.

I recently read an article that basically said we should get rid of annual reviews. The point of the brief article is that the sessions rarely, if ever, result in improved performance. Some of the reasons are that most managers don’t want to be confrontational and, therefore, overrate the employee. In fact, most reviews are set up to rate employees high as there is little reward for a poor evaluation, even if it is true. Too often this results in hard feelings, probably on both sides of the issue, which doesn’t translate into better job performance. 

Another factor cited is that leaders and managers spend most of their time regarding relationships working to motivate employees through encouragement and positive reinforcement of desired behaviors. This contrasts with annual reviews that ultimately require identification of deficits in order to offer areas needing improvement. The concept is that no one is perfect, so they must have some aspect of their work that does not meet standards. There are other reasons such as the fact that 80 percent of the people think they are in the top 30 percent of achievers. This can’t be possible but you can’t convince the 50 percent it isn’t them!

During my daily readings of the newspaper, I read the Dilbert comic. It is simple and ironically true most of the time regarding work life. Recently it had the boss telling a couple of employees that people were the company’s most valuable resource. They responded by saying they would remember that at their annual reviews. The boss then said that the intended motivation had backfired. I think this tongue-in-cheek discussion and sarcasm is close to the truth. Hence, rarely, if ever, do annual reviews deliver better performance and better employees. Good workers continue to be good and marginal remain marginal. A better approach is to informally conduct reviews as issues arise. Tell people when they do well and coach or mentor when performance is not what is expected. If you are still committed to annual reviews, start by asking the employees how they think their performance is and what they plan to work on in the coming year. The vast majority of employees know how they are doing and will be candid in their assessment if you have a good relationship.

Changing gears, another view of supporting employee performance is through an organized awards program. Many departments have methods to recognize firefighters who do exceptional work. Those that don’t have such programs should not discount the value of medals and certificates. Consider that many individuals retain their trophies and badges for life. Those who earned merit badges in the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts still have them well into adulthood. Those who played sports are likely to have the trophies that they value for the rest of their lives. This would indicate that recognition is good for everyone.

It is important to have a good plan for any awards program. It must be fair and impartial. It should be controlled by the membership with minimal oversight by upper management. The only controls would be budgetary or anything that could be misinterpreted by those outside the organization. The recognition has to be legitimate and earned without any bias regarding who or what is recognized. There should be clearly defined objectives and criteria regarding the types of meritorious service that will be recognized. Any department not doing this but wishes to begin can contact other organizations willing to offer ideas and assistance based on their programs.

Besides being a fire chief, I also serve as the Executive Director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association. Recently I received a request from a member who wanted to get a copy of their 1993 ISO certificate since they had misplaced theirs. This tells me that certificates, ribbons, and awards must be important if someone wants to replace something that they received over 22 years ago. Awards programs, while maybe not embraced by all, do benefit an organization and are important to individuals, regardless of what might be said openly. Departments should consider implementing them if they do not have a system or they should evaluate what they are using to make sure it is appropriate. It is a very low-cost way to thank and recognize people who are doing good things for their communities.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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