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Tips for Developing an Employee Goal-Setting System

written by: Michelle Shuler Key•edited by: Ginny Edwards•updated: 1/22/2011

An employee goal-setting system with clear, well-stated objectives can help challenge and motivate staff. Learn about the different types of goals, selection and phrasing, and where goal-setting fits in with your internal review system.

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    Why Set Goals

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    The primary benefit of an employee goal-setting system is a more streamlined office, where each employee has specific, directed objectives. There are, however, a number of other advantages to goal-setting as a way to meet the many challenges facing human resources. Clear, defined goals help each employee understand her place in the office hierarchy, and many workers thrive when given a challenging objective. Additionally, an employee goal-setting system gives you as an employer a definable method of measuring performance, even for employees with more nebulous job descriptions.

    Image by FreeDigitalPhotos, Renjith Krishnan

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    Types of Goals

    Your employee goal-setting system should be based around objectives that are appropriate, attainable and relevant to the job’s requirements. Beyond this, goals can be either task or performance-oriented.

    Task-oriented goals often take the form of projects, where success can be measured easily. The benefit of task-oriented goals is that they present the employee with something tangible to strive for. Many employees thrive when presented with a challenge, particularly one that plays to the employee’s strengths and reinforces the importance of his position to the overall performance of the office.

    Performance-oriented goals can be more general, and are not always as easy to measure, so prepare to be more specific and detailed in your goal recommendations. “Improve time management skills," is a reasonable objective, but requires further explanation. Clarify this goal with specific recommendations such as meeting all deadlines or replying to correspondence within a specific time period.

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    Employee Input

    To get the best results from your employee goal-setting system you will need buy-in, which means empowering your employees by allowing them to set goals for themselves. Sit down with each employee to discuss which goals you think would be appropriate, then solicit feedback by asking the employee what objectives she would like to accomplish. Direct the response by asking which items she thinks are most critical to her job success. Not only is the she now more invested in the process, but this offers you as a supervisor an opportunity to see how your employee views her position. Completely mismatched goals could indicate some confusion about job priorities. Take the opportunity as you set goals to redirect the employee if necessary, but remain encouraging and positive.

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    Language Matters

    As with most human resource and management duties, there is a psychological component to establishing a successful employee goal-setting system. The language you use in stating goals is perhaps more important than the goals themselves in terms of employee motivation. To set your employee up for success in achieving goals:

    • Use positive language. Avoid nebulous phrasing such as “work on," in favor of affirmative words like “improve," or “increase."
    • Clearly define your expectations for what constitutes completion of each goal. Be as specific as possible.
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    Pulling it All Together

    A common way to incorporate an employee goal-setting system is to tie it in with your regular performance appraisal. Not only does the appraisal help you define what goals are appropriate for the employee, it has the added advantage of a built-in timeline. A general outline of the goal-setting process might go as follows:

      1. After filling out the employee’s appraisal, use it as a guide to help you write down your own thoughts on what goals would be appropriate.
      2. When meeting with the employee to discuss the appraisal, work together to set goals for the next appraisal period.
      3. Create a detailed action plan for meeting each objective. The employee should drive this aspect of the process so that he takes ownership of the goals rather than feeling micromanaged.
      4. Meet to touch base at regular intervals before the next appraisal and goal deadline. Be flexible about adjusting goals if new issues come to light during the process.

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      Above all when setting goals remember the popular acronym S.M.A.R.T. Your employee goal-setting system should be built around objectives that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. Well-crafted goals that meet these requirements will allow your best employees to shine, and give you as a supervisor valuable insight into the productivity and priorities of your team.

      Image by FreeDigitalPhotos, Renjith Krishnan