Employment Law: An Example of Evaluating Performance

Interview with a Senior Manager of an International Corporation:

The following interview is with Michael Link. He holds the position of senior manager at an international corporation and has long been involved in the process of hiring, evaluating, and occasionally terminating employees. The following is the interview of his perspective in today's work environment.

Interviewer: Mr. Link, talk me through your process of hiring employees.

ML: Usually by the time I meet a potential employee, he or she has been through the application process, either internally or externally. Due to the nature of our work we rarely take applicants who send us a cold résumé.

We follow a process that has been well-established through HR, our Human Resources Department, and what we are looking for are behaviors in an individual. We don't ask questions based on a skill set. That should have been established in their résumé. What we're looking for is whether they are a good worker, whether they have the right attitude, and what they will contribute to the team or to the corporation.

Interviewer: What questions do you ask, or can you ask?

ML: The type of interview process we use is called a STAR interview, and it is behavioral in nature. We ask just about anything they're willing to tell about their past and current experience as it relates to the job. Stay away from anything that can be construed as discriminatory in any way. We can ask their reason for leaving their previous job, but we can't pressure them into revealing everything about that. Even if they don't answer, we can verify employment. What we don't ask are specific questions, just generalities.

When checking references, we can ask if they left under good circumstances. Did they leave of their own volition, and whether or not they would hire this person again.

Interviewer: What exactly is a STAR interview?

ML: It stands for Situation, Task, Action you took, Results you achieved. Each interview is different, but this looks for what makes a person tick. Based on their résumé, I can tell if they have the technical expertise to do the job. What I want to know is whether or not they are going to do the job and whether or not they are going to add or detract from my organization.

Interviewer: Can you give me an example of a STAR question?

ML: OK. I would ask: In order to lead people, you may have to make an unpopular decision. What did you do to get people to buy into this? What was the outcome of the event? You see, there is no set script. I do this almost intuitively, but then I've had a lot of training in learning to conduct interviews well. Most people can give you a "snow job." A STAR interview finds out whether a person is all bluff or whether they really can do the job.

Interviewer: Can anyone use the STAR technique?

ML: Absolutely. I would highly recommend it. Most people really have no idea how to interview people for a job. In fact, I would speculate that most small-business owners have no idea how to find the right employees.

Interviewer: How can you learn this technique?

ML: Take classes. Most community colleges have ongoing classes for small-business owners, and some of those classes include interview processes.

Interviewer: What would you specifically recommend for anyone conducting an interview?

ML: Stop talking. Most people just don't know enough to stop blabbing; they're trying to sell the job. Get the interviewee to prove he or she can do the job. Get that person to talk about themselves, how they work, how they problem-solve, how they arrive at decisions.

Really, you want more than just a warm body in any position you need to fill. All too often a small-business owner just needs someone; they don't take the time necessary to find someone who will fit into their team. They need to fit business-wise, and personality-wise.

Interviewer: What is the cost of hiring the wrong person?

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ML: In my field of technical work, it can cost a lot of money in poor design and the necessary redesign work. There is a time cost in getting things to market if they're slow workers. A huge cost is in employee relations, other employees resenting that they have to carry someone who is not doing their job.

More important is loss of morale and the loss of a sense of being part of a team. You can't put a price on that kind of cost. You can end up losing good people just because you didn't take the time to hire a good employee. If they're not a good fit behaviorally, they do not fit in with the team. The stronger individual will win. Sometimes the stronger individual is the new, bad employee. You'll lose good people who will leave, looking for a better environment. Losing good people who have taken years to train can cost my company hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the new hire is a bad fit, you develop a bad environment. Good people want a good environment; in fact, you should look for, even crave a good environment in which to work.

Interviewer: What about promises of job security?

ML: Never. The only guarantee I can provide is that if you do a good job and make the business successful, you might have a job tomorrow. The economy dictates. That's business.

Interviewer: Tell me about your performance review process.

ML: We evaluate a person's efforts against the demands of the job. This can be tough or easy, depending on circumstances. I believe in giving people a chance to grow, mainly because you want your business to do better. The challenge is to always keep the bar of expectation always going up. I always encourage them to perform better. If they just maintain, then they won't get a raise. If they improve, they get a raise.

If they don't perform well or have issues, and this can even happen to good workers, you have to address the issue. It's my job to constantly help my employees to grow in their job.

I use two bases for evaluation:

1) I evaluate on results, how well a job is performed, and the quality of the work done, especially as compared to others.

2) I then evaluate based on behaviors; how well they lead, influence others, cooperate. … My business is international and some of their behaviors have a global impact. Do they understand this and support it? Do they treat people well? Are they a leader or not?

Interviewer: What if you have an issue you have to handle? Maybe they're not performing well in their job and you wish you had someone else.

ML: I believe in constant feedback, and I always bring up even small issues long before a performance review. Anything that is a lingering problem, it is identified, and during the performance review I give them options on how to correct it, maybe class work, mentoring, or outside assistance.

If it is a large issue, then it is significant enough to be corrected. Unless it is a flagrant rule violation that requires immediate termination like embezzling, endangering a co-worker, I am willing to work with the employee to correct the issue.

Interviewer: What are the steps?

ML: The first time is considered a verbal step. They are given a verbal notice, but we do write down the meeting and both of us sign the paper. The employee does not have to agree with everything, just acknowledge that the meeting occurred and what we discussed. This is kept in the personnel file until the issue is resolved. Once it is resolved, the paper is destroyed.

The second time there is a written notice…and you have to realize that every company has several corrective actions steps and wherever you are, you need to follow those steps to the letter. For us, it is Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, and Step 4, you're out the door. Everything requires written documentation. My job is to explain to them in great detail how they can work themselves out of the situation. I empower them.

Interviewer: How important is it to keep a written record of everything?

ML: Vital. You must keep a written record, a paper trail of every event, every meeting, every outcome, every everything! Anything that is part of the written correction action process becomes a permanent part of that employee's personnel record.

Interviewer: How do you achieve termination then?

ML: By the time you reach that step, you've given the employee every opportunity to change behaviors and make choices. Usually at this point we give them the ultimatum. Then we send them home overnight and let them decide for themselves whether they are willing to do what it takes to save their job, or to leave. The point here is that you give the employee the choice. It is his or her choice to stay or to leave.

Interviewer: What happens if you just lose your temper and fire someone?

ML: You're setting yourself up for a lawsuit. While this is a work-at-will state, larger corporations can be targets if you fire someone indiscriminately. In this economy, even small-business owners can be at risk. Be sure to have your legal Ps and Qs in place. Never let emotions come into a decision this important. You should have compassion, but avoid negative emotions. I believe in fact-based management of people. I avoid a lot of problems this way. Emotions have no place in the workplace.

Interviewer: Can you try to get someone to leave by making life miserable?

ML: It is really better to try to correct the behavior. For people who have poor behavior and performance, it is not as hard as you would think to get them to follow the steps. It can be harassment if you try to just get them to quit.

Interviewer: Do you ever demote people?

ML: That's touchy. Typically no. I never cut salary based on performance. Sometimes we try to reclassify someone, change someone's title, but we don't mess with their salary. Admittedly, this is mostly to keep them from seeking legal action. It's possible, too, that they could be in the wrong position. It's up to me to try to find the right fit. That is just good management.

Interviewer: Tell me about the actual termination.

ML: They usually know they're terminated. … Most of the time, they've made the decision, not me. They sign the paper, get walked out the door. If you have followed the rules, it is pretty straightforward. You have to have a documented process so that it is not hidden from the employees. As long as everyone knows all the steps, and you make sure you follow them, you should be in good shape.

Interviewer: What about post-employment inquiries? How do you handle those?

ML: I cannot say anything that could negatively impact a person's ability to get a job. That will get you into trouble. I can say that they worked for me. I have been asked, "Would you hire again?" My usual response is, "Given the right circumstances and the job role I would." I can't talk about salary or why they were terminated. In today's litigious environment, you have to be very careful how you answer these questions. The more ambiguous you are, the better.

Interviewer: Any last words?

ML: It costs a lot to hire and fire, so it is well worth the effort to get it right the first time.

STAR interview:

Situation or


Action you took

Results you achieved