Productive performance reviews for golf course employees

A poorly executed employee review can have zero or even a negative impact on a staff member’s performance. Try these tips to conduct reviews that improve and retain your workforce.


Filed to: Labor, Management

Golf course employee
Employee turnover can have significant financial implications at a golf facility, which makes investing the appropriate amount of time in coaching, counseling and developing your employees all the more essential. Photos by Montana Pritchard

Properly conducted employee performance reviews can be an essential management tool. They focus employees on organizational goals, and they identify and close the often substantial and unrecognized communication gaps that can exist between supervisors and subordinates.

However, it would probably come as no surprise to many that a recent Wall Street Journal article reported that an academic review of 600-plus employee feedback studies found that “two-thirds of appraisals had zero or even negative effects on employee performance after the feedback was given.”

A recent string of posts about performance reviews on GCSAA’s discussion forums is enlightening as to the similar frustrations superintendents are experiencing:

“After doing employee reviews for years, I’ve come to the conclusion that we are all creatures of habit and nobody ever really changes,” one superintendent commented. “It’s a rare breed that can accept constructive criticism and change for the better.”

Another noted, “Nobody here can come up with a decent solution. However, this has become HR’s pet project, and they have yet to show us anything of substance.”

Yet another superintendent lamented about being required to create three new goals for seasonal hourly employees. “Step back and think about that. Really?”

Looking beyond employee motivation

A supervisor should never start a performance review with the assumption that an employee is unmotivated.

“Research has shown that when employees are not doing well, 80 percent of the time it is the system that has gotten in the way,” says John Millikin, management professor in the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Tempe. “Supervisors really need to look in the mirror first and ask what is getting in the way of the employee doing a good job.”

It is imperative for superintendents to consider factors such as whether a team member has the right tools and training to do the best job, and whether the employee’s co-workers are supportive. “If you start with the idea that the employee is not motivated, you will be right only about 20 percent of the time,” Millikin adds.

Based on his experience as a golf course superintendent, Michael Vogt, CGCS, CGIA (Certified Golf Irrigation Auditor), and now a golf and turf care consultant with The McMahon Group in St. Louis, cautions: “It’s easy to lay blame on employees. Unless you have an employee that failed to follow directions and caused a specific condition that led to an unpleasant or unusually difficult season, be cautious not to assign blame for conditions beyond his control.”

A process for employee feedback

Don’t be tempted to skip employee reviews entirely, Millikin advises, because many supervisors do not provide daily or weekly feedback. Or if they do, it’s only when they catch somebody doing something wrong.

“Performance reviews need to be viewed as a process rather than a template,” Millikin says. “When doing performance reviews, managers tend to look at the piece of paper that needs to be filled out instead of a performance management process. If managers look at performance reviews as an asset to help them manage their people more effectively, then performance reviews can be very effective.”

Keep in mind that performance reviews are all about employees getting feedback on the two issues most important to them: how they are doing and exactly what is expected of them. Most employees also welcome the opportunity — in a non-threatening atmosphere — to provide feedback on what supervisors can do to help them do a better job.

“When approaching the subject of performance reviews, you have to preface it with what you are trying to accomplish,” Millikin says. “You need an overall framework for viewing the performance review process, and that begins with management’s view of its employees.”

Golf course superintendent
Keeping the lines of communication open at all times will enhance the review process with your golf course employees.

Vogt says the majority of employees want to do a good job, but need guidance. “Long-term, full-time employees are a valuable asset to any workforce. By benchmarking, training and coaching employees, they not only grow in the job but also become more valued employees,” he says.

“The only way to measure employee performance is through employee evaluations that document if the employee is making headway and you are doing your job. It is about production, which is what golf course management is all about.”

Effective performance reviews may be the most important, task-relevant feedback supervisors can provide to team members. The reality is that reviews take up maybe 1 percent of a supervisor’s time. If they contribute to improving an employee’s performance even to a small extent, they’re a worthwhile effort.

Keep reviews relevant

The effectiveness of performance reviews is greatly enhanced when employees perceive reviews as relevant to their particular needs. To help keep performance reviews on track, use a format that organizes your approach and guarantees important questions are covered. The emphasis should be on future performance; discussions of past and present performance are important but less pertinent. By focusing reviews on the questions employees most want answered, supervisors will elicit better cooperation from their subordinates and a more positive reception to the review.

Vogt notes that, unfortunately, most employees and supervisors view performance reviews as a form of discipline, or at the very least, a discovery of things gone wrong.

“Everyone should view a performance review as, hopefully, an objective review of how the employee functions within the organization, keeping all lines of communication open between employer and employee,” he says.

Any good performance review starts with a detailed discussion of what the job entails. Developing accurate job descriptions is an essential part of the process. But remember: Job descriptions are only a snapshot of what the job is, or what it was when the description was written. Employees’ roles, especially at the professional level, are dynamic and changing. A good job description should reflect that as well.

“The process really begins with performance planning and establishing goals that are meaningful and comprehended by the employee as relevant,” Millikin explains. “Employees want to feel that their hard work is meaningful toward helping meet the goals of the organization.”

Vogt encourages superintendents to view performance reviews as “an opportunity to focus on the matter at hand: employee performance relative to the goals of the club, the course and the superintendent.”

Setting S.M.A.R.T. goals

Just like you, employees want to know what is expected of them before the next review.

“As part of performance planning, you want an agreement up front on how we are going to measure success,” Millikin says. “Saying ‘do your best’ doesn’t get you anything. People react to measurements so they know they have done a good job.”

In setting goals, Millikin uses the acronym S.M.A.R.T., which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant to the job and Time-based.

Remember, employees deserve to know both what they are doing right and specific areas that require improvement. Begin your appraisal of past performance on a positive note by itemizing what has been done well. A constructive beginning forestalls potential defensiveness by the employee. The discussion will then offer an excellent opportunity for you to directly relate the employee’s past performance to areas they need to improve for future advancement. Clearly pointing out specific opportunities for improvement is immensely valuable to employees.

Although some employees may not be interested in promotions, many of your best performers are. Their desire to understand their advancement prospects needs to be honestly accommodated. Vogt suggests that employees who are interested in career advancement be given an opportunity to excel in all areas of course management, including budgeting, employee relations, labor management and advanced agronomic knowledge.

“I would have several well-stated goals for the person who wanted to advance in the golf course management business and review those goals with them on subsequent performance reviews,” he says. “However, employees who do not desire to ‘move up the ladder’ should also have stated goals, and the superintendent should extend their levels of proficiencies and achievements.”

Be honest and communicate clearly when discussing an employee’s career prospects. Sugarcoating career opportunities that may or may not exist before the next review can result in short-term, improved performance, but after a perceived promotion or valued assignment vaporizes, a bitter employee may seek opportunities elsewhere.

In addition, be sure your valued employees know about company tuition reimbursement opportunities or upcoming training programs. Let them know you want to see them succeed.

With some planning, it’s possible to measure the degree of success in almost everything your staff is responsible for achieving. Determining the most relevant measurements requires creativity, forethought and practical experience. Although the task may seem difficult initially, the more time you spend developing performance-oriented quantitative measurements, the easier it will get.

The 360-degree performance review

For six years Vogt has been using the 360-degree performance review method to encourage employee participation and feedback. Although this process has its drawbacks, he says he has found it a lot less stressful for the employee.

“This method uses confidential input from many people who can truly respond to how an employee performs on the job,” he explains. “The superintendent and employee meet to discuss the feedback. This type of performance evaluation feedback helps employees see themselves as others see them and allows them to seriously examine their behavior. It can reveal areas in which employees are performing particularly well and those areas requiring improvement. It provides information of which neither the employee nor the superintendent may be aware.

“When employees consider this process, as opposed to being evaluated by just the superintendent who has single-viewed knowledge of what they do, they begin to see the value in this type of evaluation, and conclude that it is more accurate and equitable than other traditional approaches and puts all employees on a level playing field within the team.

“This review process is also helpful for the superintendent. It can provide a more accurate assessment of an employee’s performance and help eliminate accusations of favoritism. And because the feedback is submitted anonymously, it provides the superintendent with the most unbiased and accurate information from which to draw performance conclusions.”

When your team offers suggestions on how you can supervise and support them more effectively, don’t become defensive in your tone of voice, your direct response or your body language, or they will very likely keep their opinions to themselves. Remember, you expect them to be open to your suggestions, therefore you need to reflect equal openness.

If a suggestion isn’t practical, don’t just say no — explain why it can’t be done. Company policy or your management style may not be compatible with the suggestion, but subordinates deserve to know why their suggestions are denied. Otherwise, they may clam up and stop participating in the review process just when you get to the meat of the review: enhancing future performance.

Aligning organizational goals

Employees’ acceptance of organizational goals is imperative. Millikin suggests that supervisors communicate clear organizational strategies and objectives that tie back to employees in a meaningful way. Employees’ involvement in goal setting motivates them toward owning the goals instead of having them imposed.

It’s your responsibility to ensure the employee’s comprehension of each goal and its measurement. Vague descriptions or misunderstandings can cause confusion and hard feelings later. Value judgments, such as dress and friendliness, are quickly forgotten. It is important for supervisors to practice good communication skills, such as asking for employee feedback on key points, to confirm a clear understanding of the goals.

Perceptions of fairness are paramount. If an employee honestly believes the goals are unreasonable or favor certain team members, morale and production will suffer, and the employee will usually just give up. Non-threatening, mutual agreement by the supervisor and subordinate is critical during the review process.

Golf course staff
Engaging your employees in setting performance goals can help them further buy in and see that they are a vital part of the operation.

The performance review can be concluded with a discussion of any anticipated departmental or organizational changes and their impact on employees. This discussion focuses the subordinate on the importance of change and prevents destructive grapevine rumors. Grapevines exist in an informational vacuum and are the primary source of information in organizations with dysfunctional internal communication networks.

Jeanne Knutsen, president of Pace Employment Services in Bellevue, Wash., emphasizes the employee’s role in implementing change. She uses the review process first to point out areas where an employee needs measurable improvement if he or she is going to adequately prepare for the future. She then paints “a really positive picture of what the outcome of positive change will be for the employee and the organization, as well as the consequences of not adapting to change.” Lastly, she coaches her employees to help them “diminish the perceived difficulty of the change process.”

Knutson says it’s essential for performance reviews to be the employee’s and not the supervisor’s. When employees are given the opportunity to think about the feedback and write their own plans, they will take ownership of it.

Improving the employee review process

Often supervisors feel overwhelmed by a human resources evaluation form that they perceive as having little relevance to their needs. As a former vice president of human resources at Motorola Inc., Millikin says he has found that a good HR department will be open to feedback.

He suggests approaching HR with details on how the process is challenging for supervisors, along with suggestions for improvement: “Point out the things in the HR form that are working well and the things that are not working well. Suggest areas for improving the process.” Never just walk in and tell HR that the forms are useless. “That isn’t going to help,” Millikin says. “It’s a matter of selling HR on what’s working and what needs improvement.”

Vogt suggests designing a customized template and explaining to HR that you need changes that are specific to your department but that still dovetail with the overall organizational goals and objectives. “I strongly believe that a performance review should be business-specific and evaluate specific performances such as mowing, changing cups and installing drainage,” he says. “If the reviews ask questions that are germane to all employees and leave areas for specific comments, then one well-crafted review can accomplish a desirable outcome.”

Vogt also says he prefers to review employees on their anniversary dates. “With somewhat staggered dates, the job is less monumental than if the superintendent had to evaluate the whole staff at one time,” he says.

In addition, he recommends setting aside an employee performance review after writing it and then rereading it just prior to the evaluation. “Nothing is worse than making a mistake or viewing an employee in a different light. You may have had a bad day when you originally wrote the review, and you were more negative than you needed to be. Or you may have just missed something. Doing performance reviews wrong can leave long-term scars with an employee,” Vogt says.

Successful performance reviews all have several common elements: They concentrate on future success while offering useful and timely feedback on past and present performance; they answer the questions employees most want answered; they provide opportunities for input; and they enhance employees’ career development.

In Vogt’s experience, all great employees are not necessarily born with great work skills. “Part of investing in a good work force is constant improvement, partially through evaluation and training,” Vogt says. “Progress for great employees may be measured in weeks, months and years, but evaluations may be our best measuring tool on a specific employee and their abilities and behaviors.”

Kent R. Davies is a widely published business management writer and a frequent contributor to GCM.