Telling Employees the Truth About Employee Performance

by Jamie Resker | Posted | Communication

Telling Employees the Truth About Employee Performance

Julie Graziano, Organizational Development Consultant within the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WI DNR), along with her colleagues and HR Director, Bob Masnado, has reimagined their organization's going-through-the-motions performance review process.

It's now a system with new protocols designed to simplify and clearly differentiate employee performance. The new system helps managers communicate tough messages with honesty and respect for the employee and get-back-on-track opportunities for underperformers.

Ditching the going-through-the-motions performance review

The WI DNR's new vision statement paints a clear picture of the agency's desired future:

"We excel at protecting and managing natural resources while supporting the economy and the well-being of our citizenry."

Early on, with Graziano's support, the team realized that the current performance management practices needed to work harder to support WI DNR's vision statement. However, turning vision to reality meant increasing clarity for expectations, individual commitment, and holding all employees accountable for their performance contributions.

After examining existing employee performance management practices, an ad-hoc team came up with recommendations for four core enhancements:

Part 1: Retool the performance rating scale

The new scale was designed to clearly differentiate and calibrate employee performance. It was compressed to four levels instead of five, and what was formerly the Meets Requirements category became Solid Performance: Fully Successful.

This category was reoriented to be the centerpiece of the scale, with its corresponding performance level set very high. With this change, there is now no way to construe success criteria as C-level work!

The more compelling headline here is that ratings are now represented visually to capture the two performance dimensions: the what and the how.

To paint a two-dimensional picture of performance, the agency adopted the Employee Performance Continuum:

employee performance continuum


The continuum is a more holistic way to see employee performance levels. It also quickly surfaces and differentiates the six-types of performers the WI DNR finds in its organization. The agency uses the continuum for calibrating performance across the entire organization.

End result: the feedback has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic because it now feels like an honest, accurate and transparent model.

Part 2: Rewrite the agency's competency profiles

The competencies needed to be updated to reflect the success indicators required to support the new vision.

For example, the old definition of service excellence was: Provides average customer service.

While the agency's six competencies with their definitions remained in play, the benchmarks were thoughtfully re-written.

For example, here is the agency's new definition of service excellence:

Makes customer service a top priority and constantly seeks to improve customer service. Is responsive to changes in what customers want and need. Delivers on promises made to customers and follows up appropriately. Desired outcome: A strong connection to our customers.


Holding employees accountable and assessing actual performance to the expected level of performance has empowered agency managers to give honest assessments and engage in frank conversations, particularly with off-target performers. See the WI DNR's complete competency model here.

Part 3: Provide performance management skills training

Managers are now expected to manage performance in an ongoing way. It's no longer about the forms and process. It's about the people and the right conversations. To get to this point, the WI DNR training team had to help managers to engage in the right conversations.


Equipping managers to engage in performance conversations is central to providing full and truthful information to employees. You can't foster accountability or ownership without it. These skills don't come naturally to most managers, and telling them to give feedback won't necessarily make it happen.

Part 4: Help underperforming employees get back on track

As with any organization, the WI DNR has its share of underperformers. Graziano says the agency culture has been gradually shifting to provide managers with greater support to address underperformance. The clear message to managers is that HR and agency leadership will support managers in addressing underperformance by telling the employees the truth - regardless of length of service or position.

The two-dimensional model (the what and the how of performance) quickly and easily surfaces underperformers. No more hiding spots.

The clearly described competencies, the what and the how ratings, and performance management skills training provided to managers, are all helping employees realize what good performance looks like, what is expected of them and why.

One tool the agency used to facilitate this clarity around performance expectations is through the use of a Memo of Expectations (MOE). See a sample MOE here. When compared to the more intensive Performance Improvement Plan (or PIP), the MOE can have more of what Graziano describes as a "coach-like" style or tone. In some situations, it's exactly the right remedy to draw attention to employee performance and to convey the gravity of the situation.

Making performance management strategic

From what I can see, the WI DNR is really doing performance management right. The days of going through the performance process in rote fashion are long gone.

The catalyst for any performance management initiative should always be about helping to accomplish an organization's mission and vision. As Graziano explains, organizations need to be able to ask, "Are the organization's employees working in a way that will help make the vision a reality?"

Think carefully about whether your organization's performance management system drives performance or is an administrative process where success is measured in how many performance reviews were completed.

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