Friday, May 21, 2010

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? (-:


James Castellano said...

I do not like them. If you set proper expectations and review them regularly with your people they are not necessary. Item #10 is right on track.

Kahty Clark said...

Yes, you want a good debate all you have to do is bring up the subject of performance reviews. People really get passionate about this subject and unfortunately it's mostly negative. I agree that there is nothing worse than a bad performance management system but I would argue that a good one can encourage and help develop employees. And I agree, the 16 page review every year can be overkill. I also agree HR folks are the worst at compliance to the "rules".

Benjamin McCall said...

Best approach to me is that people take on reviews in an inch-by-inch approach. Do all the steps in small, incremental steps - versus one big chaotic god-i-forgot-to-do-it-so-now-i-have-to-hurry-up-and-come-up-with-something-quick take!
Another good one Dan!

SME said...

Dan...I agree with most of your opinions and shared them with our community ( do think feedback is critical but it's got to be married with quality goal setting. I do think services like Rypple ( present interesting options for providing feedback...

Mary Jo Asmus, President, Aspire Collaborative Services LLC said...

I live in the Midwest, where our performance reviews seem sto suffer from "Midwest Nice", meaning that performance reviews and discussions seem to gloss over (or just not address) the areas where an employee needs to improve. No wonder some are surprised to be fired! If performance reviews only address what someone is doing well, they are not helpful - for the manager doing them, the employee or the organization.

Dan McCarthy said...

James -
Thanks for weighing in!

Kathy -
Thanks. How about 2 pages max?

Ben -
Makes sense, thanks.

Thanks for sharing them. I agree, goal setting works!

Mary Jo -
Funny! Good point.

See Ann Bares recent post on the tooic of performance reviews - it's good:

Bruce Lynn said...

Well, you knew I would have to pay a visit on this one. :-)

Curiously, I agree with the spirit of almost everything here.

A few observations...

"damn 16 page form..." - In my experience, it is the employee who drives the length. They are the ones who want to cover absolutely everything. They want to 'go on record' about all the great things they have done and they great ways they have done them.

"managers hate writing them and hate delivering them" - To bad, so sad. The important stuff is often the hard stuff. A manager who 'hates delivering' ain't going to find "good day-to-day management and leadership" any easier (unless 'good day-to-day' is code for slack-off, shallow feedback).

These two points appear to be the nub of the matter - (a) PRs are hard at the core, and (b) processes often entail even more effort. Tools (like 'software' and 'peer assessment') are, yes, well-meaning and might help. But nothing, no matter how clever, escapes the fact that 'good leadership and management' means (a) you are going to have to make some tough calls (eg. determine whether and how a worker really performed), and (b) do it in a very careful way, choosing words, approaches, very skillfully (because it is a highly charged area involving both ego and money). This is the tough bit. Tools, processes and 16 page forms are intended to help. They are also intended to make sure that weak managers don't shirk this responsibility (like the great Dilbert cartoon).

I really wonder about motivations behind the managers and employees who 'hate them' and I'm glad you've strongly dismissed motivations such as (a) accountability avoidance, and (b) power philosophy. My experience is that for both managers and employees, #a is the primary driver. But, I would add one more - (c) laziness. PR, like any sort of substantive feedback, is hard work and sometimes well meaning processes only make them harder.

Again, in my experience, listening to fellow managers moan about the process, when I looked at what was going on, they simply did not want to put in the time. They felt that a pat on th back and couple of good words were enough (they were also the sort of managers who got their secretaries to buy their wives a card and gift for their anniversary). Relationships (such as between a manager and staff) require work. I know some 'charmers' think that a few well chosen words does the trick. Unfortunately, relationships take reflection, insight, time, listening, sharing and other things which take effort and time.

Dan McCarthy said...

Bruce -
Well done! You make some compelling points, i.e., managers might not like them simply because they are hard work if done the way they should be done. Thanks.

Anonymous said...


You bring up leaving out peer assessment from the PR. In your experience, how do you handle getting some of the "soft skills" type of feedback on remote employees or employees a manager doesn't get the chance to interact directly with on a frequent basis?


Dan Cooper said...

Another interesting argument for the one-pager:

Gwyn Teatro said...

Hi Dan,

Like you, I think organizations have made the process of individual performance evaluation way too complicated but I continue to believe that some form of tool is required to capture and acknowledge contribution and development needs.

Some time ago, I wrote two posts on the topic of performance reviews: The Dreaded Performance Review

and The Performance Review and Some Ugly Truths

Frankly, neither comes up with any kind of "magic bullet" but they may add something to the overall thought process and discussion here.

Dan McCarthy said...

Anon –
Good question. It’s hard to personally observe managing remote employees, so you often have to rely on the perceptions of others. However, my answer would the same as for co-located employees. You can be talking to (and being open to feedback) co-workers, clients, and other employees throughout the year, instead of sending out a written survey at performance review time.

Dan –
Thanks, good article, worth a read.

Gwyn –
Again, good articles. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Personally I like performance reviews, but that has only been since I started working for my current employer. It is the way they are handled - rather than going to an uncomfortable meeting just waiting to hear what you should improve on, we (the employees) are expected to come to our performance review with a list of accomplishments. We then tell our boss how WE think we did, even acknowledging what needs to be worked on, what can be better etc. After going through your accomplishments it is time for the manager to give you some critical feedback relative to what you just said. For me, I want to come to that meeting with a list chalk full of great things I have done- and if I haven't done that much, it's on me to tell my manager that the next review will be better. This way of doing them promotes accountability and alleviates that parent/child feeling that I remember getting from the performance review format of my previous company. I find this way to be more effective, productive and less stressful.

Dan McCarthy said...

Take charge -
Sounds like they are working for you, that's great. Thanks.

John C said...

My performance reviews in 2008 and 2009 were wonderful experiences, with glowing reviews and scoring. But then, on top of getting no share dividends those years, we received no annual bonus and no pay rise.
So what were they really for, if not just for upper management satisfaction that wasting lots of time across the company on meaningless reviews justifies their position descriptions!

Performance review 3
Salary satifaction 0

performance appraisals said...

Mine too! I got good performance review last year. I'm hoping to continue my good rating by pushing myself more to improve.