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When an employee sues for an alleged discriminatory firing, the court will want to see the employee’s evaluation. A sterling evaluation and high praise quickly cast doubt on a termination supposedly based on poor performance.

But we all know performance appraisals are notoriously unreliable because supervisors tend to look on the bright side. How, then, can you encourage honest evaluations?

One effective tactic: Have employees identify their weaknesses and address those in their performance evaluations. Ask the employees to come up with suggestions for correcting the problems or achieving higher performance. If an employee is eventually terminated, you have her acknowledgment of her weaknesses. In court, that’s far more powerful than the manager’s assessment.

Recent case:
Pueblo Community College hired Tamara Muhic to manage the maintenance department. She was selected over a man whose reference said he was “pushy” and “stepped on toes.” Muhic’s reference said she was “collegiate” and knew how to “bring out the best in people.”

By the time her first evaluation came along, she had made progress in bringing more efficiency to the department’s work. But the progress came at a cost. According to her self-assessment, she had “been aggressive and I haven’t always effectively managed the impact on others.” Although she got an excellent overall review, her supervisor suggested she work on her people skills.

Things did not improve. Subordinates complained, and Muhic got into spats with co-workers. Finally, the college fired her, in part because of her poor attitude. She sued for sex discrimination because a man replaced her.

But the college pointed to Muhic’s self-assessment as evidence that poor management skills were the discharge reason. The court sided with the college, ruling that Muhic failed to show she was terminated for reasons other than the flaw she herself had identified. (Muhic v. Pueblo Community College, No. 06-CV-02390, DC CO, 2008)

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