How to Set Employee Goals: Tips, Examples & More
- Human Resources
6 min. Read
Last Updated: 05/05/2023
Table of Contents
Employee goal setting is a key responsibility for any manager. By setting measurable and attainable goals, a supervisor not only guides improvement in employee performance, but can also actively help strengthen the business and enhance its reputation as an employer of choice.
What Is Goal Setting for Employees?
Goal setting uses short-term action items to motivate and inspire an individual to achieve a long-term vision. In a work setting, this can be a combination of setting specific, measurable, and actionable steps that help an employee and the organization move towards a larger, desired result. For an employee, this result typically represents professional and personal growth.
Employee goal setting is usually a collaborative effort between a worker and their direct manager or supervisor. Progress should be measured against benchmarks and a manager can offer guidance to help a worker identify the skills and professional development needed to advance them toward a goal. Managers can also help employees find and establish goals that work within their roles and available resources. Goal setting for employees may also account for that worker's personal targets and future ambitions within the organization.
Employee Goal-Setting Examples
Employee goal-setting examples vary depending on the individual, organizational needs, their role, and professional aspirations. Here are some types of employee goals:
- Personal Growth. These types of goals may or may not be work-specific, though it can be argued that as an employee develops personally, they are more likely to feel satisfied and bring an elevated skill set to their role. For instance, an employee may want to improve their creative thinking abilities and identify several ways in which they can accomplish this such as reading books, taking on a creative assignment within the organization, or enrolling in a class.
- Professional Development. These can be skills or goals set to help an employee develop in their specific role or for a future role. Perhaps the employee needs to sharpen their leadership skills, improve their time management, or attain a professional certification.
- Team Focused. There may be times a department or team within the organization must expand its collective skill set to improve performance or deliverables. For example, consider an HR team that engages in equity, diversity, and inclusion training so they can better understand how to incorporate that into the organization.
How to Define Goals for Employees
Understanding how to define goals for employees can be the difference between improving productivity or the disappointment of stagnation. It's important that goals advance all the involved parties — individual, team, and business. Keep the following pointers in mind when determining employee goals:
- Take a comprehensive approach. As an employee, an individual's goals should be in alignment with their personal development, that of their team, and the organization's priorities.
- Collaborate. Goals can be a powerful motivator and as such, it's important that an employee take ownership in the process of developing them. Supervisors and managers should provide guidance while balancing a certain level of transparency with the team to ensure support and a positive environment.
- Keep goals realistic. Few things are more discouraging to an employee than to be excited about moving towards certain goals only to not be given the resources to attain them. Set employees up for success by establishing goals that work within the employee's role as well as the organization's budget and objectives. Establish measurable steps so progress can be documented and assessed.
- Personal Development. Helping an employee reach their goals is a way to show them that the business cares and supports their personal and professional growth. For a business, investing in an employee's individual growth can also foster a sense of loyalty and increase engagement while reaping the rewards of a more highly skilled workforce.
Why Is Employee Goal Setting Important?
Setting goals at work can offer other benefits such as helping to:
1. Ensure Staff Alignment.
When more staff members are working to further the company's broader short-term and future goals, the coordinated effort is likely to move a business forward, which can be advantageous to everyone in the form of job satisfaction, a healthier bottom line, and a clearly defined sense of purpose.
2. Establish Clear Guidelines.
Well-defined goals for employees that are attainable and measurable give supervisors and employees a set of guidelines and criteria that can be used in employee reviews and evaluations.
3. Deepen Employee Engagement.
Goal setting for employees done right can help inspire and motivate them while helping them thrive in their roles. As a business invests in its employees' growth and development, it can help them feel valued, thus deepening engagement even more.
4. Grow Top Talent.
Helping current employees establish and reach their goals is another way an organization can expand the skill sets of its workforce and promote the development of top talent and high-performance teams within its current ranks.
7 Tips on How to Set Employee Goals
Here are some considerations for goal setting in the workplace that can help make the potential benefits a reality.
1. Set Goals That Align with Company Objectives
Each employee's goals should be tied to the company's overall growth strategy. When employees understand how their individual roles and responsibilities contribute to the bigger picture, they're often more focused and motivated to achieve goals that result in success for both the business and themselves. Consistently communicating strategic business goals (and regularly emphasizing the company mission) can help keep employees engaged in the work they do.
Businesses may choose to link their company performance goals to key strategic objectives, and from there convert those into team-performance goals. As a result, employees may accept increased accountability as they recognize how their individual performance directly impacts the company.
2. Invite Employees to Identify Job-Specific Goals
Managers may have certain objectives in mind for each employee, but they will likely get insightful answers if they ask employees to identify goals specifically related to their job and that are meaningful to them. There's a big difference between imposing goals on employees and encouraging them to suggest goals on their own. When their suggested goals align with company objectives, a manager can work alongside employees to develop action plans to attain those goals.
Depending on the position, employee goal-setting ideas might include those centered around productivity and efficiency. When working with an employee, aim for fewer mistakes on the job and an increase in productivity. This could translate to more sales calls in a day or, for a customer service representative, addressing customer issues in a shorter period of time, so as to interact with more customers on a daily basis.
3. Set SMART Goals
Employees may not know how to make goals for work that they can realistically achieve. In the past, they may have created vague or poorly crafted goals, which tend to feel daunting and set them up for failure in achieving their objectives. Instead, carefully planned, clear, and trackable goals set within the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based) framework can help outline the steps necessary to reach a goal.
Each element of the SMART framework, outlined below, works together to set boundaries, define next steps, identify necessary resources, and pinpoint indicators of progress. Consider using the SMART goal framework when working with employees to help them create a strong foundation for success.
Create goals that are as clear and specific as possible. When you and the employee first meet and you ask them about a goal they want to achieve, their answer may initially be vague ("I want to do better on sales calls"). But the more the employee can hone in on a specific desired goal ("I want to increase my number of units sold"), the more you can help them understand the steps necessary to achieve it.
Getting into the specifics requires asking the right questions. When working with employees, ask them for more details, such as:
- What are you looking to accomplish?
- Who is a part of this goal?
- What are the steps to achieve this goal?
- Why do you want to achieve this goal?
- What outcomes need to happen to make this a success?
The measurable part of the SMART framework outlines specific criteria for indicating progress toward a goal. It helps employees stay on track, keeps them accountable, and adds motivation as they quantify how much closer they're getting toward achieving an accomplishment. For the salesperson in the example above, the measurable part of their goal may be: Increase my sales calls to the Midwest region by 2 percent each week and increase overall unit sales by 8 percent.
When working with employees on measuring their goals, drill down into specifics by asking questions such as:
- How much of an improvement are you aiming for?
- What key performance indicators have you used before, and how successful were you? Does anything need to change with this new goal?
- What indicators will signal that you've met the goal?
A well-defined goal is one that an employee can realistically attain, but should also stretch the employee in their role so that they feel challenged. During this part of goal-setting, consider any limitations that might stand in the way of the employee hitting the achievement. Work with employees by asking questions such as:
- Is this goal realistic?
- Do you have what you need to get it done?
- How does this goal fit in with your overall workload?
- Have others been able to achieve similar goals?
- Are other relevant team members available to help if you need it?
For example, if you ask your salesperson the questions above, they may realize that increasing unit sales by 8 percent is too aggressive. Looking at factors such as the company's sales history and the employee's workload, a target increase of 6 percent may be more realistic.
A relevant goal should align with other goals, but also be worthwhile to the employee. They should be able to clearly see the benefit of going after the goal, understand how and why the goal is important to the business, and help reinforce how their work is part of the big picture. When determining the relevance of goals, ask employees:
- Is this goal worthwhile?
- How well does this goal align with our company's mission?
- Does this goal map to current business priorities?
In the salesperson example, the goal of increasing sales in the Midwest may be relevant if the company is focusing on improving market presence in that area of the country in the upcoming year.
You and your employees need to be on the same page about when they need to reach goals. Without a sense of urgency, your team may not feel motivated to achieve them. That's why it's important to set clear target dates for meeting goals. Depending on the position, specific goals centered around productivity and efficiency are often very effective, such as more sales calls in a day or addressing customer issues in a shorter period of time. When building SMART goals, work with your employees to answer the following questions:
- What is the deadline for this goal?
- Why is this deadline important?
- Are there other initiatives hinging on the completion of this goal?
Examples of SMART Goals
Goal-setting in the workplace can range from performance achievements to professional development ambitions. But all well-crafted goals are aligned to larger key business strategies. Some employee goal examples that revolve around performance improvement are:
- Increase new signups by 15 percent by the end of Q1 to improve the sales pipeline.
- Contact 100 percent of my customer base each month on either a direct contact or touch basis, using meetings, email, or phone.
- Reduce call wait times by 10 percent over the next six months to improve customer service ratings.
In the area of professional development, examples of goals include:
- Network with two company senior leaders every six months to better understand how other areas of the business work.
- Complete all management training courses in the company Learning Management System (LMS) before my next performance review.
- Attend one industry event each quarter and share findings with the team during staff meetings.
4. Emphasize Attainable Goals
Attainment is an important factor in the SMART goal framework. As mentioned above, goal setting can fail when the objective is overly ambitious or unrealistic, given the employee's skill set and available resources. Burdening an employee with an out-of-reach goal can lead to frustration with the process and a resulting lack of motivation for further improvement. They might think, "Why should I even bother if this is an unreasonable goal for anyone to achieve?"
Consider previously established benchmarks when working with employees on their goals. One way to consider how attainable a goal can be is to consider if someone else with equal experience and training has achieved a similar goal before.
5. Set Consistent Goals for Employees with Similar Responsibilities
It's the employer's responsibility to foster a healthy working environment that encourages growth opportunities for employees. Goal setting in the workplace may backfire when it's framed as a contest or competition among employees. It can also quickly undermine a positive work culture. Refrain from encouraging internal rivalries, which can lead to diminished morale, frustration, and resentment.
6. Reward Employees Who Achieve Their Goals
It's critical to recognize employees who achieve or exceed set goals. Not only does such a recognition (reward, bonus, certificate, or public acknowledgment at a staff meeting) honor that employee's efforts, but it also demonstrates that the company values this type of commitment and hard work. It may even further incentivize the rest of the workforce to work hard on their own goals. Alternatively, when such hard work goes unnoticed, employees can justifiably feel there's no point in working so hard and may reduce their productivity or even begin looking for a new job elsewhere.
7. Work Closely with Employees Who Fall Short
Not every employee will successfully attain their goals, regardless of how hard they try. Ideally, their manager periodically assesses progress and steps in to provide assistance where needed. In a situation where the agreed-upon deadline arrives and the employee hasn't met their goals, there should be an in-depth discussion about what went wrong, combined with encouragement to try again and address or rework the stated objectives.
Help Your Team Succeed with Effective Employee Goal Setting
Working with your employees to set goals helps strengthen a culture of ongoing feedback and open communication. Employees with clearly outlined goals are also in a prime position to push themselves, meet new challenges, and feel they are contributing to big-picture initiatives.
Create a competitive advantage for your business. Help your workforce stay challenged, motivated, and connected with their work through appropriate goals. Learn more about how goal setting can help deepen employee engagement within your organization or explore how HR consulting may be right for your company.