Making performance reviews relevant again: Change up the process

While the value of performance evaluations has not diminished, the way fire departments approach them should

By Linda Willing

Most fire departments are still doing regular performance reviews, and a few of them may still be happy with the process. However, many departments are clearly not. Some fire departments have even gone so far as to eliminate the performance review process altogether.

What’s wrong with the way many fire departments do performance evaluations? And how can the process be improved as to be truly meaningful and valuable for those who use it?

Traditional performance reviews aren’t reflective of the firefighter

Design a process that can happen more frequently, less formal and is situation-specific. (Photo/Pixabay)
Design a process that can happen more frequently, less formal and is situation-specific. (Photo/Pixabay)

When I became a firefighter, decades ago, the performance review process worked like this: Every six months or so, someone in a position of authority would fill out a form which rated individual department members on different characteristics on a scale of one to 10. There was no requirement for any narrative justification for the ratings, and the person doing the evaluation may or may not have been someone that the person being rated had actually worked with much, or, in some cases, at all.

Not surprisingly, the results of this process were not very enlightening or useful to anyone.

Some fire departments are still following a process very much like the one described above, and that is a real problem for everyone in 2018.

The old process didn’t work particularly well before, and it doesn’t work at all, now. Younger firefighters have markedly different needs and expectations when it comes to feedback and coaching. Fire departments that want to bring out the best in all their members, especially the youngest ones, will need to rethink the process of doing performance evaluations.

Consider using concise, pointed and event-led performance evaluations

How can you make performance evaluations relevant, meaningful and even welcomed by those who both give and receive them? Here are a few ideas.

  • Make the process more responsive and timely. Design a process that can happen more frequently, less formal and is situation-specific. Did you just have your first major structure fire or rescue in a while? In addition to doing a crew debrief, consider meeting individually with those who participated to talk through what went well and what may need improvement.
  • Link feedback to behavior. Be sure that any feedback – either reinforcing or critical – is linked to some specific action or behavior. Don’t just tell someone, “You did a good job at that house fire this morning.” That’s nice to hear, of course, but not very informative. Exactly what did the person do that was good?
  • Be as specific as possible. “When you noticed that additional gas line and took the initiative to shut it off before we made entry, that was quick thinking and made the scene safer for everyone.”
  • If there were problems, talk about them specifically. Rather than saying, “You need to work on your scene control,” try saying, “I know it’s stressful having family members screaming at you when you are alone outside. Try and work with the police department to get the perimeter established as soon as possible.”
  • Know the person. Any type of performance review should be done by someone who knows the person being evaluated and has some type of relationship with that person. It’s not enough to have just worked a couple shifts together; there should be an established relationship of respect in place before the feedback process can be truly effective. When there is a relationship, there can be a conversation. In the example above, ask the person, “What do you think we all could have done to prevent interference at the scene by family members?”
  • Use a framework of safety for the evaluation process. This frame is especially important for the youngest generation of firefighters, who grew up feeling less secure than their predecessors. Attention to physical safety of course should be a priority, but psychological safety is important too. You want people to be able to hear what you say, not just feel defensive, angry, or fearful. Personal feedback, whether positive or negative, should always be done one-on-one for this reason.
  • Provide support. The process should be based on the assumption of providing support to improve and excel. This assumption is extremely important for the youngest firefighters, who may need more support and reassurance to give their best. Tell people, “I want you to succeed.” Don’t assume they know this. Say the words.
  • Keep the process manageable and brief. Everyone has a reduced attention span these days, but this is measurably true for younger people who expect both immediate feedback and frequent changes in focus. If you give performance feedback more often, there will be less need to do it as exhaustively as was done in the past. You can still document the process, but the documentation will be more on point and concise.
  • Be sure that you’re talking about things that really matter. I remember some past performance evaluations going on endlessly about things like how someone took care of their uniform. Is it important for firefighters to look professional and to wear the proper uniform? Of course. But this should be the kind of issue that gets immediate correction when there is a problem, not something that is worth designing a formal process around.

The younger generations at work are open to feedback. They want it and expect it. Now the challenge is to design processes that make feedback as relevant and as useful as it can be for all involved.

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