Running From Reviews? Performance Appraisals Don't Have To Be Dreadful.

The very thought of an annual employee review makes most people’s stomachs turn. But performance reviews can be a time to boost employee morale and make your practice more efficient and successful.


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The very thought of an annual employee review makes most people’s stomachs turn. But performance reviews can be a time to boost employee morale and make your practice more efficient and successful.

“Performance reviews have a bad reputation because of the way they have traditionally been handled,” said Lorraine Monheiser List, CPA, MEd, co-owner of Summit Veterinary Advisors LLC in Littleton, Colo.


The old-school methods of delivering performance reviews were based on a few generic questions and discussing failures over the previous 12-month period.

“The result was that the reviewer dredged up the things he or she remembered, which tended to be those events that were especially memorable, often because something bad happened,” List said.

This can do more harm than good.

“If employees feel admonished for the two things they did wrong and not appreciated for all the things they did right, then [reviews] may be causing more harm,” said Karen Gendron, DVM, author of “A Practical Guide to Performance Appraisals,” published by the American Animal Hospital Association Press.

In a progressive practice, problems are addressed immediately, experts said. This way, the annual review is a time to offer praise and set goals.

“You must see your employees as an asset to the practice,” said James Guenther, DVM, MBA, MHA, CVPM, of Brakke Consulting Inc. in Asheville, N.C.

“And like all assets, you have to maintain them periodically,” Dr. Guenther said.

“You must fix, repair, and say thank you, thank you, thank you for being here, and let’s get back on the same page doing the same thing.”

Reviews are Essential

Like an oil change in a vehicle, annual reviews should not be optional, experts say. They provide an opportunity for improvement in a practice, and not delivering them means employee improvement is not systematically measured.

“The review helps the practice be sure it is meeting its goals, that everyone is on the same page and that everyone knows the vision and is heading in the same direction,” Guenther said. “It helps the practice to know that we have the right people doing the right jobs for the right practice.”

Reviews can be as beneficial to the employee as they are for the practice, Guenther said.

“It has a psychological benefit for the employee of, ‘I am being recognized for doing a good job,’ as well as a tangible benefit of getting a raise or a promotion,” he said. “This way, they can say, ‘Yes, [my job] is worth it.’”

Some practice owners may feel employee performance evaluations are unnecessary or even a waste of time. Beware of such a pitfall.

“There is a danger in not doing them,” Dr. Gendron said. “Employees are left wondering where they stand and what is expected of them. Reviews make everyone 100 percent clear what is expected.”

Conducting reviews offers veterinary practices legal benefits in terms of disciplining and firing.

“If you do a performance appraisal and then fire someone for bad performance, you have something to back yourself up with and the employee won’t have a leg to stand on,” Gendron said.

Team Goals Can Be Basis for Bonuses

Raises and bonuses are important parts of rewarding good performance, but questions exist about when and how such monetary increases should be given. The first issue is whether a positive performance review should always be accompanied by an increase in cash.

“Historically, there is too close a relationship between annual evaluations and raises,” said Lorraine Monheiser List, CPA, MEd, the co-owner of Summit Veterinary Advisors LLC in Littleton, Colo. “Just because an employee has stayed with the practice for another year doesn’t mean that a raise is automatically due.”

A practice manager should encourage an employee to participate in determining his or her increase based on the employee evaluation.

“Employees should be encouraged to view their own performance in light of how much more valuable they are to the practice now than in the prior year,” List said.

Employers should look at the goals that were set in the previous year to determine a wage increase.

“I believe strongly in rewarding employees well who have mastered new skills or taken on new tasks,” List said. “Sometimes bonuses during the year rather than pay raises are a better way to acknowledge an employee’s efforts.”

List recommends taking money set aside for cost-of-living or wage raises and using it to encourage employees who contribute above and beyond.

Another issue is whether individual raises or team bonuses constitute a more fair reward system. Team bonuses may be tricky to administer because traditionally staff members in all tiers, particularly office staff, have not received bonuses.

“If a bonus represents compensation over and above the standard wage and is based on performance, then each category of employee should have the potential to receive a bonus,” List said.

James Guenther, DVM, MBA, MHA, CVPM, of Brakke Consulting Inc. in Asheville, N.C., also recommends rewarding team efforts with a bonus.

“A practice should state at the beginning of the year, ‘This is the goal for the year, and if you reach it then everyone gets a bonus, and this is how it will be broken down,’” Guenther said. “This is an incentive that gives them ownership so they can make a difference if everyone pulls together.” After all, Guenther said, “If you are talking about a team, why not reward them as a team? That forces them to push and prod their peers.”


—S.S & A.S.

Establishing Review Policies

The review process should begin on Day 1 by providing the employee a clear job description, an employee handbook that outlines the practice’s policies and a copy of the performance review form.

“Give the employees notice of when the review will be and the criteria that will be used,” Gendron said. “This way it will be very clear how they will be evaluated and what is expected.”

A practice can’t meet its goals if its employees aren’t aware of their role in achieving the goals.

“You want to bond that person to your practice, and then they will stay longer,” Gendron said. “If you blindside them, you are already a step down in accomplishing that.”

In developing an evaluation, advisers said, first set your practice goals and then structure your evaluation around those needs.

“We looked at our primary concerns that stemmed from problems that consistently arose in the past, and we made sure we addressed them in the evaluation,” said Janet Golaszewski, hospital manager for A&E Animal Hospital in Urbana, Ill.

Veterinary practices may focus on typical office procedures such as punctuality, enthusiasm and communication, but they need to call attention to sensitivities specific to the industry.

“We are dealing with living animals, and more and more people are considering them family, so emotions are involved,” Golaszewski said. “We need to be careful about how things are handled with a pet or it can leave a client unsettled about leaving them in our care.”

It is important to allow employees a chance to offer feedback as part of their review. “Employees often have the best perspective on client satisfaction and expectations, so asking for this kind of feedback is very valuable,” List said.

“The reviewers should ask for feedback about his or her own performance and ways that the practice can make the employee’s job easier and more satisfying.”

Reviews as Teamwork

Team reviews and self-evaluations tend to create constructive feedback and foster healthy relations with employees, experts said. Such reviews can help employees “feel like their voices are respected and help them understand how everyone is being evaluated,” Gendron said. “It is not just one person evaluating, them but rather the entire staff.”

Peer reviews may be considered passe.

“In the past, practices did peer reviews only and that often brought up smoldering wounds that should have been fixed a long time ago,” Guenther said. He recommends coupling a peer review with a self-review to create a meeting of the minds.

It is important to address performance problems as they arise.

“If you can take care of daily aches and pains, then the review becomes a smooth process and employees are usually harder on themselves than you are, if they are being honest.”

Team reviews work well when a practice has created goals based on team performance.

“It takes a lot of training and confidence for practices to see that they are really working as a team, but it can be incredibly valuable,” Gendron said. “You can train your staff to know what other people’s jobs are so they know what to look for and how to evaluate them.”

Evaluations can be effective only if they are done on a regular basis.

“Every 12 months is the absolute minimum,” Guenther said. “There are practices that do small reviews quarterly and then a longer annual review because this heads off things before they become problems.”

The size and needs of the practice will determine how often appraisals will be done and how detailed they will be.

“When you reach a balance, you know how often to conduct reviews,” Guenther said.

New employees may also need to be evaluated more often as they learn their responsibilities.

“A new hire is trying to learn the system and needs encouragement and you have to direct their energy,” Guenther said. “You will typically know in the first month if you have the correct individual working for you.”

Scott and Ann Springer are free-lance writers based in Southern California.

This article first appeared in the September 2004 issue of Veterinary Practice News.

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