10 Opinions on Performance Reviews

There’s been a lot of buzz the last few weeks around the topic of performance reviews. Much of it has
re-surfaced as a result of a recent New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope about the mental health risks of performance reviews.

She quotes UCLA Professor Samuel Culbert, who wrote the book “Get Rid of the Performance Review” and the October 20th 2008 Wall Street Journal article with the same title.

Both of the articles are interesting reads, and make compelling arguments. However, neither are the first to suggest the notion of getting rid of performance reviews. There was a book called “Abolishing Performance Appraisals”written back in 2000, and Deming called out the practice as one of his “7 Deadly Diseases” backing the early 1980s.

I’ve even heard that there was an ancient secret society formed within the Catholic Church whose mission it was to wipe out performance reviews. Look for the upcoming book by Dan Brown and the movie with Tom Hanks.

I’ve already written a couple posts about the topic. One of my all-time favorite posts (albeit perhaps overly cynical) I ever wrote was back in January 2008, called “10 Ways to Screw up a Performance Appraisal”.

I followed up that up with a much more constructive, but still snarky posted called “A No Bull- #$%! Performance Review Process”.

If you read both posts, you’ll get a good idea where I stand on the issue. I hope I’ve offered an alternative that makes sense, as opposed to just whining about it.

Since I’ve written those posts, I’ve thought about the topic of performance reviews some more, and for the most part, I’m still in the same place. Here are my latest 10 completely unscientific and biased opinions on performance reviews:

1. Most, if not all, managers hate writing them and hate delivering them. They hate them because it’s so hard to come up with new things to write about “communication” every year, they are time consuming and tedious, and delivering feedback about a performance issue is about as fun as getting a root canal.

2. Despite of that, a lot of managers, maybe even most, put a lot of work into the process, try to do a good job with them, and play by the rules that are handed to them. Despite the watter-cooler & blog horror stories, the majority of managers are not complete morons.

3. Employees love getting positive reviews. They actually do take them home and show their family and hang them on the refrigerator. However, very few people enjoy or respond well to “constructive feedback”. Basic human fight or flight mechanisms take over. It doesn’t matter if it’s delivered once a year or once a day, it still feels the same. So if it’s not outstanding, employees hate them too.

4. No one should be immune from being evaluated, judged, graded, or scored. I don’t buy those philosophic arguments about power, status, human rights, etc… That’s part of life and being accountable. I always find it interesting when tenured academics write about the evils of performance reviews. In general, teachers and professors don’t like being evaluated or held accountable to begin with, so of course they can come up with all kinds of passionate arguments why no one else should.

5. HR managers are often the worst offenders when it comes to either not doing them or doing them poorly, yet the most vocal critics of managers who do them poorly (according to their unrealistic standards).

6. If you decide to try to “fix” your performance review system, be careful what you ask for. The solutions designed by well-meaning task forces, consultants, academics, HR, and rouge managers are often worse than the problems you’re trying to fix. They do, however, make very nice PowerPoint presentations.

7. Performance appraisal software can help make the process more efficient and effective – or make it all worse. It all depends on who’s doing the configuration.

8. Peer or multi-rater assessment are OK for developmental purposes, as long as the results are seen only by the individual being assessed. They have no place in performance appraisal – that’s the manager’s dirty job. Oh – and self-directed work teams? Good luck with that one.

9. “Experts” (often trainers or HR) usually overstates the reasons why they “have” to be done. It’s for “legal” reasons, employees “deserve” them, it’s “your job” as a manager. Really? Ask the expert exactly how many court cases the company has lost because of a missing or poorly written performance review. As if they would be willing to survey employees to see if they how much they contribute to performance or job satisfaction. Ask for some research that proves the ability to do good performance reviews has anything to do with leadership excellence. Ask for data that shows how doing or not doing performance reviews has ever improved the companies’ bottom line. You’ll be sure to get scowls or blank stares.
I’m not saying there really are some good reasons – I’m sure there is even some credible research – but more too often heavy-handed, uninformed arm-twisting is used instead of valid reasons. It’s OK to step back and ask “why?”

10. At the end of the day, we’d be better off getting rid of the complicated forms and mandated practices, and just practice good day-to-day management and leadership. Under performance should still be documented, great performance should be recognized and rewarded, employees should get feedback, we should be held accountable, goals should be established, career and development plans should be discussed, and merit pay should be based on performance.

OMG, does all of this sound like performance management? Maybe, but please don’t make us fill out a damn 16 page form every year. Let’s either do it right or not do it at all.

How about you? Have any opinions on performance reviews? (-: