I have two employees, Alan and Beth. If I assign a task to be completed within 4 weeks (which is enough plus some slack to spare), both will finish on time with the same quality of work. The big difference is their approach.

From the beginning, Alan starts selling up the amount of work required to try to lower my expectations. He tries to make out his work as some sort of Herculean task. I have worked with Alan long enough to know his capabilities, and know that the schedule gives plenty of time to finish (and then some). While I know there's slack, Alan works hard to give the appearance of working hard all the time.

Beth doesn't push back and just gets the work done on time. When there's slack to spare, Beth may browse Reddit or otherwise putz around on the net (or leave early, or take long lunches). The work all gets done, but the slack is glaringly apparent to both me (and everyone else).

Visual Representation of Alan and Beth's Effort

At the end of the day, the results are the same. Both are using the spare time in different ways, but both get the job done to an acceptable standard. My personal bias makes me prefer Beth's approach, only because I feel like it's more honest, but I am worried that I am just more approving of qualities I share rather than taking an objective approach.

What reasoning, if any, would justify giving different performance reviews to employees who provide the same quality of work, are the same caliber of employee, whose only difference is their approach?


If you are judging staff be their output and assigning tasks to 2 employees that need to be done within a reasonable period of time, and both employees have completed the tasks then for all intents and purposes they are the same.

(from Lego Stormtrooper's answer)

I am not managing contractors (paid to get a specific task done in X amount of time for Y budget), nor am I managing factory workers (who have a clearly objective quota of widgets to finish in a week). Part of my job as a manager is to treat full-time employees like Alan and Beth as assets for the company, and to help develop their value not so they can just get this project done at an acceptable level, but so their value as assets of the company will grow long-term.

If I judge them solely on output, by those standards I am not doing my job. Let's say my company were to ask me to layoff one of those employees. I would have to determine which has more value to the company -- not which one completed their tasks more effectively last week (and if the same, flip a coin or draw straws).

To keep employees happy I need to be fair (or at the very least perceived as fair by my employees). If it was a layoff (where things are rarely fair) I would value Beth over Alan in a heartbeat (because there is more obvious slack to pick up additional duties where shorthanded), and I don't think that would have a negative perception (beyond the fact that it's a layoff). But in the case of a performance review, I am wondering if there is a similar way to justify it while keeping the image of being 'fair'.

  • 6
    pity they are Alan and Beth and not Alice and Bob ;-) Jul 30, 2013 at 6:56
  • 4
    I think the biggest difference is, if there is more work, and Alan always appears too busy, he will never get it, if Beth shows she has the available time to do it she will get it, in a performance review they should get the same grading, they are both performing to the same level, the differences will come down to Beth getting more career advancing opportunities, and more chances to show she is capable of doing so much more.
    – user5305
    Jul 30, 2013 at 8:22
  • 2
    @jmac if alan is completing his job on time, on budget, to a good standard who cares how he gets there? Everyone handles work differently and it would be wrong to try to force everyone to work in the same way because you personally prefer it.
    – user5305
    Jul 30, 2013 at 9:00
  • 13
    Just because they both appear to have slack time doesn't mean that they could get the job done much more quickly. Apparent idle time may be necessary to the creative process. Jul 30, 2013 at 12:47
  • 11
    Are you sure you aren't favoring Beth's approach because Alan is making your life more unpleasant by moaning about the task?
    – mkennedy
    Jul 30, 2013 at 16:59

8 Answers 8


If you observe that "there's slack to spare" frequently enough, then the edge you can give Beth is that she consistently exceeds your expectations. Per my experience this has been one of the most reliable ways to indicate / back up a positive performance review.

When doing evaluation based on above, consider taking into account that if presented without appropriate care, this might have negative reflection on your own performance evaluation.

Think of it, one may argue that it's more like your fault as a manager of not helping Beth perform better: as long as she consistently exceeds your expectations, it's your job to set higher expectations that closer reflect her capabilities (and make her clearly outperform Alan, or, if he takes the challenge, make him perform better as well).

Your issues in this review appear to revolve around the slack. Consider focusing on it to resolve these.

Try to clearly understand whether the slack is indeed necessary, and if yes, then why. Even more, for review to be solid, you need to be able to clearly articulate / communicate your vision on that to others.

  • The fact that your question doesn't communicate that to readers makes me feel you're not yet there. With all due respect, "some slack to spare" is anything but clear explanation.

Besides, you need to figure (along with Beth if possible), what are your options for the slack, because this might have substantial impact on review.

Is it her firm and strong will to not put any more effort than expected? Is it a temporary inability to put more energy than now (eg for personal circumstances)? Is she interested in "filling the slack" with self-improvement or with doing more work? Is it something else? You see, review may go very differently depending on that.

  • In reality she meets my expectations (while there's slack to spare, the slack is by design). However, this is a good way to reason it -- visible slack exceeds expectations if she is finishing a job of work content 100 in 80, while Alan is finishing in 100. I like the reasoning and it actually attempts to answer the question.
    – jmac
    Aug 1, 2013 at 2:20
  • @jmac "the slack is by design" - I think unless you are able to clearly explain and back up that, your review is at a substantial risk. To avoid misunderstanding, I am not challenging your decision here, merely pointing that you better be prepared to explain and justify it
    – gnat
    Aug 1, 2013 at 7:18
  • The slack concept is like planning a call center or an electrical grid. You want to have more capacity than needed so that when something goes wrong or peak demand increases unexpectedly, you still have the resources to cover it without pushing anything beyond it's limits. The nature of the job is that the cost of having people idle 20% of the time is far less than the cost if a deadline is missed because of a lack of resources when needed.
    – jmac
    Aug 1, 2013 at 8:09
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    @jmac If you add slack, then your expectation is that the task take no longer than the time including slack. Beth always completes the task under time, Alan on time. On their actual graphs, draw the line that show where the slack starts.
    – Andy
    Jan 20, 2014 at 13:44
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    Would there be a benefit to Beth "handing in" her work after 80% of the time? Presumably then you could assign a new task to her. You build in the slack, but you should express to Beth that it would be better if she did not need to use it every time. I would tell her that her review would be better IF she cut out the slack and did the job in the shorter amount of time you know she could do it in, and then was able to move on to a new task. Jun 27, 2014 at 4:46

As is, you can't differentiate Alan and Beth

If you are judging staff be their output and assigning tasks to 2 employees that need to be done within a reasonable period of time, and both employees have completed the tasks then for all intents and purposes they are the same.

There are artifical ways that you can differenitate them during a performance review, but these can be more open to interpretation and can cause disputes if they are not clearly within the staff contracts.

For example, if you wish to differentiate by professional behaviour, you can say that Alan is better than Beth, as while both do the same work, he is giving a better appearance of professionalism, opposed to Beth who is reading Reddit and keeping odd hours. As you mentioned people are well aware of Beth's slack time, which may have effects both for her and for you. As much as you approve of her "honesty" and regardless of her actual output, you need to understand and manage the wider repercussions of peoples perceptions of the quality of Beths work.

However, if the act of look professional isn't in their contacts, its hard to say they weren't performing adequately if they are "same caliber of employee" who both "provide the same quality of work".

If there is slack, that is a management issue and is well outside their control. Sometimes slack is necessary, people get sick, systems fall down, building appropriate slack into scheduling is good and responsible management.

Time wasted can never be recovered

Any slack time is wasted, it is often necessary, but it can never be recovered. If a project goes well, and nothing goes wrong (unlike money) you can't turn around and say:

Well, we never used those 100 hours of slack, so I'll just use them on the next project.

If you wish to diferentiate them, give them an opportunity to differentiate themselves

So how can you gauge these two employees and make use good use of your slack? Well for starters, if you have determined that there is too much slack assign more work. This is an unpopular sentiment, but sometime employees can work harder and if it is in their contracts to do so, then it needs to be done. But sometimes that can't be done, the work isn't there, or as above, the slack needs to be there for project risk reasons.

Assume that Alan and Beth want to succeed, and want to do more.

Doing make-work tasks can be demoralising, and it is possibly the case that they are wasting time becuase they haven't anything else to do. As trite as this is, talk to them and find out where they want to be in 5 years. If they are good employees they will sya they want more responsibility, more pay, something, and if you are a good employer they will want all that with your company. So help them build goals that can help them achieve that that will help their careers, your own and the organisation.

  • Assign mutually beneficial 'extra-credit' tasks for the review period. These should be of a low enough priority that they can be dropped at a moments notice for the main tasks. But also have them be important to the
  • Coursera has a multitude of online courses in numerous fields, not just technology, and they are free. Suggest these as alternatives to browsing.
  • Send them to StackOverflow (or somewhere else on the SE Network). Not kidding, if they are bored, politely ask them their ID and suggest they head here and ask, answer or help. Its a crude metric, but a higher score means an engaged person who is helping themselves and others.
  • Have them review higher level stategy documents and have them brainstorm a new way of doing it. Those at the "coal-face" may have a better insight into improvements. Get them to document this, research it and provide a proposal. They might be sitting on the companies next big project and don't know it.
  • Have them do more tasks that are outside their domain of expertise but inside their role. These will take longer and provide more opportunity. Is Beth want to be a team leader? Have her evaluate resumes. Does Alan want to training? Have him right documentation for the "interested seventeen year old".

If they are honest in where they want to be, they will do these tasks. If one does the bare minimum, leave them be, thats their right - they are satisfactory. If the other does all you ask and more, and feels engaged, that is a great employee. But be prepared to compensate them for their work - in money, praise, opportunity or training.

Assume they want more work, so give them the right kind of work. But respect that in the knowledge field, even goofing off can be vital to success.

  • Thank you for the answer, but I'd much prefer if you focused on fleshing out this part of your answer: "If you are assigning tasks to 2 employees that need to be done within a reasonable period of time, and both employees have completed the tasks then for all intents and purposes they are the same." I know slack is necessary, and that is why I plan it in. I do not need to know why it's necessary, nor do I need to find something for Alan and Beth to do with their slack time (they are adults, they can decide how to use it themselves so long as they get the work done).
    – jmac
    Jul 30, 2013 at 3:53
  • @jmac I've tried to expand it, but as you say they are "employees who provide the same quality of work, are the same caliber of employee" based on their output only it is unfair to rate one over the other.
    – user9158
    Jul 30, 2013 at 4:27
  • You still have a huge gaping conditional in the first sentence, "If you are judging staff be their output" -- I am not only judging staff by their output (I already stated I am biased in Beth's favor in the question), I am wondering if it is acceptable to give an official review based on more than output. I am hoping for a bit more of an in-depth answer outlining what the boundaries for these sorts of reviews may be, and how to produce reasoning to satisfy employees while giving a different review.
    – jmac
    Jul 30, 2013 at 5:00
  • I wish I'd thought of "If you wish to differentiate them, give them an opportunity to differentiate themselves." Jul 30, 2013 at 14:58

The criteria you use for performance evaluations for this year should have been set last year. People can only fairly be evaluated against criteria they know about (well as much as any appraisal system can be fair.). And companies have differing philosophies about what those criteria should be. Old school evals tend to have subjective sections on attitude, professionalism, etc. Newer HR theories on performance evaluation think that "Objective" type criteria are all you should be evaluated on. (Hint to HR, objective criteria will almost always reward the wrong people because it becomes based on what is easy to measure, not what is required for the job.)

As a manager, you need to fairly evaluate the people based on the things they were told they would be evaluated on. If they were not told they would be evaluated on how they handle slack time for instance, it is unfair to discriminate between them on just this issue. If you want to be able to discriminate between two employees based on any criteria, the time to do that is at the time you set ojectives. Further, it appears that you have not talked to either employee about their slacking habits and any perceived problems. Bringing up a new problem in an appraisal if simply wrong. If there was a perceived problem, why didn't you address it the first time it happened?

So I would say that if the evaluation criteria you have now don't easily lend you to giving one a higher eval than the other, then you are letting your personal bias affect someone who is producing exactly the same work in terms of output and quality as the other person.

  • Neither of their slacking habits is a problem (and I do not plan to give any negative feedback to either based on the slacking). I am trying to say that I see Beth's slacking habits as an asset as it's easier to measure workload than for Alan, whose slacking habits make it more difficult to judge an appropriate workload.
    – jmac
    Jul 30, 2013 at 22:56

Why would you want to differentiate between them? They both produce the same amount of work in the same time, and while you might find one or the other's approach slightly annoying, - one tries to get out of work, one slacks off - but that isn't really a reasons to give one a better performance assessment.

But there is a much more important thing going on here.

The cause of both the behaviours that you dislike is your management approach.

You give both of them a task that you knew they could accomplish with some slack. Why? Doing that gave both of them the excuse to slack off. What you could have done was to give them the task and assign them the amount of time you thought it would take with no slacking off. At the very least, Beth would probably have finished the task on the new schedule. Alan might have still pushed back, but its up to you to accept his pushback or not. Then maybe one would have finished on time, and one not - and then you would have had a legitimate reason to decide which one is better.

I'm aware the scheduling very tight deadlines can cause problems,in which case you could build in a little time buffer after the completion date. Or, a much better solution, give them both additional tasks to do during the 'slack time' - some kind of project that they could do instead of surfing the web. It seems to me that you don't know whether Beth is slacking off because she needs the downtime, or because she knows she can finish the task well before the deadline and you haven't given her anything else to do. Be warned - if you keep giving a smart and motivated person more 'slack time' than they need, they will probably either settle into a routine of slacking, or will get bored and go and find a job that challenges them.

To stick to your immediate issue, if one of them finished the work, and did the 'extra credit' task then they area clearly the better worker.

EDIT:Some of your comments seem to be implying that you think the 'non-work' stuff that Beth did, which you describe as "putzing around and taking long lunches" as essential to Beth's long-term welfare and productivity. That's a reasonable approach to take, but if that's the case then Beth didn't take less time than Alan - including essential putzing time, she took the same time. Maybe Alan's personality means that he doesn't need the same amount of putzing time as Beth. That's not a weakness of Alan, its a strength.

  • Slack is in the schedule by design. If I schedule the task with an incredibly tight deadline I reduce the buffer if something goes wrong, I put far more pressure on my employees than they would prefer, and neither of those will be good for the long-term success of the project. Slack is essential. My issue is that I can see how one person (Beth) uses the slack, while I can't see how the other (Alan) does. They both get the job done equally well, but I can't help but feel that Beth is doing it better.
    – jmac
    Jul 30, 2013 at 3:56
  • 1
    @jmac Under what metric is Beth doing better? You've said they are the same, but I can't help but feel that you want to diferentiate between them for some reason.
    – user9158
    Jul 30, 2013 at 4:29
  • They are two different people. They aren't the same. People are not their work. I said their output is the same. And I already do differentiate between them -- that isn't the issue (I would hope nobody expects a manager to be an dispassionate arbiter of output!), the issue is whether that differentiation is acceptable to be included in a performance review.
    – jmac
    Jul 30, 2013 at 5:03
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    'People are not their work'. Beth may help sick puppies in her spare time, but that's none of your business. You are there to assess their work, not the rest of their lives. Jul 30, 2013 at 13:13
  • @jmac - Check out "results only/oriented work environments". Yes, your employees are people, but you pay them for the work they do, not how they got it to that point (unless their methods are illegal).
    – Shauna
    Jul 30, 2013 at 20:53

I love HLGEM's answer ... for this year. But you CAN be giving feedback. Honestly if you have 2 employees who both give you the same output and in both cases it sounds like there's slack and the output could be better... it sounds to me like you can and should counsel both on improving - but there could be nuances I'm missing. For example, if Beth is taking it easy and reading Reddit, does she volunteer to help out or offer guidance to others? Is Alan a psychic drain, not only on you, but on everyone around him?

Beth -

If the two really are giving you the same output, but Beth could be 20% more effective by not slacking, tell her so. If she's 20% more effective, she's likely to get bigger raises, faster promotions, and a better long term outcome. Also - question yourself on whether all the slack is sustainable and whether your team can afford this rate of productivity long term.

Alan -

The key for next year, would be putting in some clear and specific expectation on ability to tackle challenges, find ways to improve efficiency and require a minimum of management oversight. There IS an efficiency loss if you have to listen to 4 hours/week of Alan's whining on every assignment where Beth nods, takes the work and gets it done with a quick 1/2 hour status update each week. If Alan cut the manager-load of all that whining, you'd save 3.5 hours in YOUR week, and he'd have 3.5 more hours a week to do the work.

Having a specific objective here would be the way to go. Clarify the norms he should be conforming to, and give some examples of what you'd like in terms of communication. I suspect you'd be happy as long as:

  • communication to you was clear, concise and covered the high level status
  • communication showed a clear sense of ownership of the project
  • communication accurately reflected previous experience with task completion - you know (and he knows) that this work simply doesn't take this long... so don't make there be more work than necessary.
  • I don't think Beth could be 20% more effective by not slacking since Beth appreciates her work-life balance and enjoys the job in a large part because it does give her some slack and flexibility. When asked to step up (for a sick team member for instance) she will do it (as she has slack time and since it is the responsible thing to do). Alan is not whining for 4 hours/week, he just says a task that requires effort of 100 will really take 120, but since he is 25% more effective than a 'normal' employee he can finish in 100 (even though both Beth and Alan likely require about 80 to do the job)
    – jmac
    Jul 30, 2013 at 23:00
  • OK.. so some of this is accuracy of estimation - which is a skill that is reasonable to expect from people - Alan appears to be pretty inaccurate - whether he's doing it out of cluelessness or as a deflection mechanism - either way, he'd be better served by being able to be more accurate, and it's fair to say that that's a desired skill. Jul 31, 2013 at 15:12

Asymmetry 1:

Alan's time estimates are inaccurate. This is something that you can both work on, by comparing his past estimates with his actual completions and challenging him to use that data to be more accurate in future. That said, I understand and share the instinct to estimate the worst case, not the probable case. It's a different kind of estimate, and it may be valuable to attach both to the project. He may not be less "honest" than Beth, just more risk-averse. If you're lucky he honestly doesn't see what's wrong with his selling up the amount of work he sees as potentially required, and just needs some guidance and confidence to make shorter predictions.

Asymmetry 2:

Beth spends project contingency time surfing the internet or out on long lunches. Alan spends it on work-like activity that doesn't actually make progress. This is something you can work on with each of them.

Is Beth down at a slack rate that you accept is necessary to preserve sanity, or could she slack less? Does she find her work boring and seeks distraction from it? If so can the work be more interesting or at least more varied? Can she be given more challenging tasks and more responsibility, converting slack time into time that you both value? Can you give her tasks that take her away from her monitor and feel like a break without her flagrantly slacking?

What is it that Alan does that makes his work expand to the available time? Can he learn to identify those activities, and not do them? Can he prioritise differently? If you just tell him how much of the time estimate is your contingency (thereby helping to manage his expectations) will he do less failed work and finish sooner, or will he panic, feel stress, and burn out trying to meet the shorter "ideal" deadline?

If you give both of them some low priority "nice to have" tasks, with no deadline, that they can work on when there is unused project contingency time available, then what would happen? Would Beth stop putzing around and do them, and would Alan do less failed work on the main project and do them? Low priority tasks are a more valuable use of project contingency time, than what either of them is currently doing.

Is either of them sufficiently experienced that you can challenge them to find or invent these "nice to have" tasks for themselves?

It sounds like ultimately you find Beth more valuable because she takes less work to manage and she agrees with your (no doubt accurate and reasonable) expectations. Part of Alan's (or anyone's) career development is to become less work to manage, and to form accurate and reasonable expectations. This is Beth's objective value-add at the moment.


My reasoning to differentiate their performance will be : Principles (rather than just outcomes)

I would look at the principles & values that they have based their performances upon and include that as a factor (not the sole) in reviewing their performance.

I dont think you are biased towards Beth, I think you just prize an attribute in her,which is honesty.

Make them aware of this reasoning before their performance review,so that there are no surprises in the review and that they get a chance to challenge your reasoning as well.


Focus on development

I share your preference for Beth's attitude. Development of the employee is critical to the performance feedback process. There is always a next level for someone to grow into. My expectation is that Beth will respond more positively to your efforts to develop her, and the results of this development will show a measurable difference in performance later.

It is possible that Alan will respond better and grow faster, and if he does, then we discovered that our expectations where wrong, but no harm done.

The reason for my preference is the same as yours, honesty. Self-honesty is key to development. Self-deception leads to insecurity which breeds other misbehavior including work avoidance, blame shifting and writer's block. I would expect to see evidence of these misbehavior if the person is practicing self-deception. If the person is just trying to deceive you that indicates a fundamental lack of respect (I mean, who is fooled by this) that will make it difficult for you to give constructive feedback (in a way that is positively received).

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