A No Bull- #$%! Performance Review Process

From a reader:

“A colleague of mine referred me to your website. Thanks for taking the time to share.
I’m looking for some guidance on making our performance review process better.

Thank you in advance!!”
– Human Resources Advisor

HR Advisor, you have my sympathy. You’ve just been given the assignment that just about every HR professional gets to take on at some point in their career – fix the performance review process!

Of course, before we launch into a solution, we’d want to find out what’s wrong with the current process. Having led or been a part of performance review improvement initiatives at three different companies, I think I can guess why you’ve been asked to take this on. It’s probably one of more of the following:

– You have a new HR Manager
– You have a new CEO
– Employees have complained about the current process
– Managers have complained about the current process
– HR is complaining about the process, i.e., “Managers aren’t doing them; they don’t know how to write comments, etc…”
– You did an employee survey (another version of #s3&4)
– A consultant told you it needed to be improved
– You read a book, or an article, or went to a conference and heard about what other companies say they doing and you’re not doing

If I’m sounding cynical, it’s because poor performance review processes are rarely the real cause of any legitimate business performance issue – like increasing revenue, market share, reducing costs, etc… and they don’t really contribute to employee satisfaction of productivity (other than generating a lot of complaints). The reality is most employees don’t like getting them and most managers hate doing them. I hardly meet anyone other than HR that wouldn’t rather just do away with them. And actually, a lot of HR managers and employees hate them and aren’t good at them either. Don’t believe me? Try auditing your HR department’s performance appraisals.

To make matters worse, when initiatives are launched to improve performance review processes, they often consume lots of time and resources, and when faced with the new and improved processes, the complainers end up regretting they ever complained.

Why is the solution usually so painful? Well, if you search the web, read books, go to conferences, and learn about the “right” way to do performance management, you might end up with a system that looks something like this:

– Position profiles, job descriptions, or comprehensive competency models for every job. Don’t have them? Well, time to get working on them!

– Some version of complicated goal setting, management by objectives, balanced scorecard, SMART goals, or some other way to quantity every detail of each employee’s work aligned with company objectives. You’ll have to teach everyone how to write these, and do a lot of inspecting to make sure they’re doing them

– A career and development planning process – at least 3 pages for this part

– Some kind of structured ongoing feedback and coaching – with forms and sign-offs

– A long performance appraisal form to rate and comment on every behavior, score and assess every goal and measure, and perhaps even a multi-rater component. 14 pages minimum

– Lastly, because the system is so complicated and requires so much paperwork, you’ll want to automate the process with some kind of purchased or home-grown software system

I have to admit, I’m guilty of designing systems similar to these. In theory, it all makes sense, and it’s hard to argue against any one of the components. Unfortunately, what often happens is that these things are designed by committee, and they end up looking like pork-laden legislation filled with everyone’s favorite earmarks.

I guess one good reason to do them is to protect the company from lawsuits – to justify terminations. But that only applies to a small percentage of your employees. HR might tell you we need them to administer merit reviews…. but do we really? Most managers could easily determine how much of a raise their employees should get without a stack of paperwork.

Don’t get me wrong… I think we should still have a management system for setting goals, development planning, assessment, feedback, and coaching. The key is to keep it simple and real. So here’s my advice:

A No Bull- #$%! Performance Assessment Process

– A half page for goals, quotas, performance standards, or any other way that describes an employee’s accountabilities. It should pass the “would my mother understand it?” test

– The other half page has no more than 6 qualitative competencies or critical behaviors required to be successful in the role. Managers could pick from a menu or use the same ones for every job

– A one page development plan

– Managers and employees review these two pages at the beginning of the year, and periodically throughout the year

– At the end of the year, the manager would assess each goal or standard, and provide a simple rating for each competency or behavior, along with a 1 paragraph overall performance summary. All on the same two pages. And then have an authentic, constructive, give-and-take discussion

– If you can afford a reasonably priced piece of software, or build one yourself, I’m all for automating things as long as it makes a manager’s job easier and the employee would truly benefit from it. It sure will make it easier to track and report, if that’s important to you.

Readers, please weigh in with your opinions on performance review processes. Am I being too snarky? I take a lot of pride in trying to keep this blog upbeat and positive…and I’ve re-read and edited this for the last couple of days, but it keeps ending up the same (actually I’ve toned it down).

If you disagree, what advice would you give the reader instead?