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Culturally Sensitive Performance Appraisal Forms

Question: What can we do to make sure our performance appraisal form helps managers communicate expectations and results with employees from a variety of cultures?

Answer: Designing and implementing a new performance evaluation system can be tricky when a workplace consists of individuals with vastly different backgrounds, customs, perceptions, ways to process information and working styles.

Yet an effective performance appraisal form should be clear to employees from all cultural groups and measure what it is supposed to measure. Therefore, it is important to make sure that performance criteria are culturally sensitive. For example, criteria such as teamwork or client relations might include “smiling” or “maintaining eye contact” in a description of desired behaviors. But in some cultures excessive smiling and direct eye contact might not be customary and might even be perceived as strange.

A form should include items and scales that are very specific and leave little room for interpretation. For example, research shows that those from Asian cultures are more likely to use midpoints in rating scales, which could be attributable to cultural emphasis on moderation, while Americans are more likely to use extreme points on the scale. Evaluation will be more precise if each point on the scale is defined quantitatively. For example, if a manager is rating an employee on attendance, he might be given options such as “employee was more than 15 minutes late more than 10 times in the past year” and “employee was more than 15 minutes late less than 3 times in the past year” as opposed to less descriptive options such as “rarely late,” “occasionally late” or “frequently late.”

And instead of saying something like “provides clear direction,” define the phrase more clearly—for example, “sets criteria, time frame and budget when directing.”

Provide specific examples that are illustrative of the company’s context and recognizable to all employees. On the appraisal form, during training and during feedback sessions, relating concepts to familiar situations will help avoid misinterpretation. Providing opportunities for integration and socialization will further enhance the cross-cultural learning experience.

To Translate or Not to Translate?

An organization should consider whether the appraisal form, training materials and handouts should be translated into the first languages spoken by employees. Although providing the actual training and feedback sessions in each employee’s native language is probably unrealistic, translating and distributing forms and materials should be feasible. And translation will ensure that the content reaches every employee. Such a decision should factor in the level of English-language knowledge and the number of languages spoken by employees, as well as the financial resources available. Adapting materials to a different language is a tedious and expensive process involving analysis, several iterations of translations and back-translations. Therefore, a cost-benefit analysis of sorts should be performed to help decide whether translation would expedite and facilitate the implementation of the appraisal system or, on the contrary, slow it down and increase the costs unreasonably.

The focus of a performance appraisal system in a culturally diverse environment should not ignore or glaze over the cultural differences but should leverage them. Promoting the advantages of cultural diversity should be a strategic imperative for any multicultural organization. Tailoring the performance appraisal system to maximize its effectiveness among all cultural groups can make a significant contribution to an organization’s goal of managing cultural diversity.

Daria Chernovitskaya is an organizational development consultant currently employed in a small multicultural law office in Bellevue, Wash.


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