Applying a Skills Matrix to Performance Review

Tracking an employee’s status in meeting key expectations can ease the overall review process.

In past columns, I have pointed out the benefits of developing a skills matrix for employees (see July 2016’s “The Ongoing Need for Cross-Training” at short.mmsonline.com/crosstrain). Such a matrix can take many forms, but generally should list the skills required for a job and a ranking of each employee’s performance in terms of those skills. The ranking system can vary, but something as simple as the number 4 representing a high level of skill and the number 1 representing a low level of skill, or no skill at all, can be effective. (I prefer an even number of rankings, such as four, to avoid the tendency to rank everyone in the middle, as can be easily done when there are an odd number, such as five.) The skills can either be weighted according to importance to the department or all treated as equally important. 

The purpose of a skills matrix is two-fold: first, to identify a department’s overall competence level on certain key skills, and second, to identify each employee’s strengths and areas needing improvement. The department’s overall competence on specific skills can be improved through education and on-the-job-training, and by bringing highly skilled employees onboard. The individual employee’s skills can be maintained or raised through setting of expectations, clearly communicating those expectations and providing ongoing feedback regarding performance on those expectations. These just happen to be critical factors in an effective employee performance review system.

Next to interviewing prospective employees, completing employee performance reviews is often cited as a one of the most daunting tasks that managers face. Although many managers excel at completing such reviews, just as many struggle when asked to recap an employee’s performance over an extended period of time (typically a year for most companies). Some even fall into the trap of evaluating someone only on what that employee has done “lately.” The skills matrix can assist with the performance review process, as it shows, in a simple format, how each employee is performing on key tasks. If the skills matrix is updated on a regular basis, it will also track changes in an employee’s skill levels, another key component of an effective employee performance review system.

As with any tool, a skills matrix is only as good as the information it contains. The skills selected for each department must be important to that department, and if a weighting factor is used, that factor must objectively indicate the level of importance. The best place to start in selecting skills to include in the matrix is a job description. Ideally, a job description will describe the key responsibilities associated with a particular job. For example, a job description for a machine setup technician might include the responsibilities of recognizing cutting tool requirements, determining cutting tool conditions, understanding CNC programs and measuring parts to assure they are within tolerance. Each of these responsibilities then can be included in the skills matrix for a machine setup technician. If job descriptions do not exist or are outdated, then a simple listing of tasks that must be completed for a given job is a good place to start when building a skills matrix.

Once the key skills are identified in the matrix, the department manager or leader should rank each employee on every skill. This process actually can be thought of as a mini performance review, as the manager is evaluating each employee’s performance and comparing it to past performance. In addition, comparing the performance of different employees responsible for the same tasks can serve as a benchmark for establishing future expectations for the overall group.

Information compiled in the skills matrix can then be transferred to any standardized employee performance review document or simply attached to such a document. Using the skills matrix in the review process provides a standardized means of evaluating an employee’s performance on the things that matter most to a department. Sharing the skills matrix with the employee (which I highly recommend) makes clear which expectations that employee is meeting or exceeding, as well as the areas in which improvement is necessary. This also shows the employee how he or she is performing relative to others in the department.

Applying a skills matrix to an employee performance review process can be a win-win for both employees interested in being recognized for the things they do well and learning what they need to do better and the department managers or leaders seeking an objective means of communicating current performance, sustaining good performance and driving improved performance.