"The other people that work here don't have the same level of commitment that I have," one of my employees said to me during an evaluation. He had just walked in--30 minutes late .

Keith Castleman Truth is, he's probably correct. This particular employee routinely stays late when we're busy, never complains, will do any task and is very interested in our success. He is probably in the top 5% of all people doing his same job and has only been late a couple of times since he started. This evaluation was supposed to be routine. But after a few questions, I realized he wasn't as happy with his co-workers as I thought.

Being a manager of 26 employees, I have many days that start off great and then go south quickly. When someone tells me how committed he is after showing up half an hour late, I'm forced into an uncomfortable conversation to make sure he and I are on the same page. Having clear and open communication with your staff is one of the most important factors in having a healthy company.

The evaluation process involves talking with each employee on a regular basis. These meetings should take place in private and should start with your finding out as much as you can about how they see themselves and end by making sure they clearly understand what you expect of them.

It's sort of like the checkup our family dog had recently, though now it's called a "wellness evaluation." Jack is a five-year-old, 20-pound Lhasa Apso, your run-of-the-mill family pet. Jack and I don't get along exceptionally well, a situation that dates back to his days being house trained. As the head of household, I resent someone who demands I buy him food yet continually goes to the bathroom on my living room floor. That's all behind us now, but sometimes old wounds heal slowly.

Jack seemed excited as we walked him into the pet paradise for shots and a cut. He was wagging his tail, smelling everything in sight and he had an extra little spring in his walk. Jack was having a good day ... so far. We checked in, weighed him, and filled out way too many forms of questions that I couldn't answer. (Do some dogs really have allergies? Do people really know the date of birth of their dogs?) The checkup turned out to be similarly thorough. Staffers checked his heart rate and asked at least 100 questions about Jack's medical history, of which I could answer maybe two.

Then the nurse (yes, she looked just like a regular nurse) pulled out a thermometer and told me to hold him tight because this was going to hurt. In case you are wondering, the thermometer was not heading under his tongue! Jack did not enjoy this at all (which was slightly encouraging to me); he growled and barked and even acted like he was going to bite the nurse.

In much the same way as Jack's wellness evaluation, evaluating your employees should start with a few (or 100) questions about how they are doing. You might find something in their answers that can lead you to uncover what could become a problem even though everything seems fine at the moment. This type of prodding and poking can be as difficult for you as it is for them. It's a rare person who enjoys criticism, and if you ask enough questions, you're going to uncover something that isn't perfect in your company. To separate yourself from an average leader, you need to first be willing to have frank and honest discussions with your people and be committed to taking necessary steps and actions to correct what could potentially become a problem.

Of course, before you start asking questions, you should be prepared for the answers. You also must be willing to take necessary actions to correct anything that could develop into a problem. This might be something as simple as changing some of your favorite systems. It also could involve letting people go.

By successfully completing evaluations of your staff, you can build a team of employees who are happy, healthy, committed and symptom-free. To thoroughly evaluate your people, you also must be willing to pull out the thermometer every so often. But be prepared: they might growl and bark a little.

Keith Castleman manages the 84 Lumber facility in Blue Springs, Mo. You can reach him at [email protected]