Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Do Performance Reviews Suck?

I was very surprised a few days ago to read the business headline, "Yes, Everyone Really Does Hate Performance Reviews," from no less esteemed a source than the Wall Street Journal.

I was taken aback by this because, as a student of Grand Poobah of Management Dr. Kerry Sauley of LSU, I believe that feedback is the Breakfast of Champions. Regular and constructive feedback is what separates decent managers from great managers, and the ability to receive and act on that feedback is what separates promotable employees from those who will spend the rest of their lives doing what they're doing right now. I've always looked forward to my own performance reviews, whether I was giving or receiving them, and whether they were positive or negative. I've always looked at them as excellent opportunities to grow and develop.

So imagine my surprise when the abstract of this Wall Street Journal article advocates the eradication of the time-honored business process of the annual/quarterly/whatever performance review. As I dug into the article, I realized that the performance review process the author is familiar with, has little in common with the one I know, which made me wonder if my experiences are rare or somewhat unique.  In the author's world, performance reviews are a wholly one-sided process, performed at regular intervals, during which employees find out if the boss likes them. That's pretty much it, from the author's view: the employee listens while the boss gives good scores if she likes the employee, or bad scores if she doesn't. Performance reviews, in the author's experience, are just a tool for managers to force employees to buy into their line of thinking (although I'm not sure how exactly that relates to being told if you're a good or bad employee).

I honestly don't know if the author is clueless on this topic, or if my own experiences with performance reviews are truly that rare.  Here's what my world of performance reviews has always looked like, through four major companies and my own entrepreneurial efforts:

Performance reviews are a timed complement to a regular feedback process of conversations and learning. Feedback and review happens on a daily basis through regular conversations, as the manager learns more about how the employee does business and the employee learns more about how the manager would like to see business done. It's sort of like school; daily quiz, homework, and test results are the regular feedback an employee receives, while the formal six-week report card is the employee's performance review. The review is the culmination of it all, the chance to document what has been learned and what wasn't; what the employee's strengths are and where his weaknesses lie; and it's even a chance for the employee to tell the manager how he thinks the manager's doing leading the team.

Is that really so rare?

I couldn't disagree more with many aspects of the article, but there are a few points of agreement I see. I've known many managers whose only employee feedback was during their performance review; that's unacceptable. One rule I've always had as a manager is that no employee should ever be surprised by anything they hear from me during a performance review, because if they're surprised, that means I've done a poor job of regularly communicating feedback to them.  I know there are many managers out there who break this rule, who only offer feedback when they are forced to by a deadline-enforced performance document. And in those cases, that document probably is fairly worthless.

I'm sure I'd also agree with the author that forced measurements, as are common on many corporate performance reviews, are bunk. For instance, one company I worked with strictly enforced a rule that no employee was allowed to receive a perfect score for any job skill, no matter how good they were... because they could always be better. That rule frustrated me... after all, if an employee can't receive a 5 out of 5 in customer service skills, for instance, why is that score even possible on the review? And how do I reward someone who used to be a 4, but has improved dramatically?  Another rule I've encountered that makes no sense is an expectation to measure all employees on the same skill-sets, even if the employees have different positions that use different skill-sets. How does measuring an employee on a skill, one that has nothing to do with his job, help that employee become better at his job?

I love performance reviews because I love regular feedback, both formal and informal. If I've got a great employee, I want to give him a formal, written document showing him that the company knows how great he is. If I've got a terrible employee, I want to give him a formal, written document showing him that his lack of progress is noted, and he needs to improve. If I've got an average employee, I want to give him a realistic snapshot of his strengths and weaknesses, and give his a chance to become great. If I've got Kenny Chesney working for me, I want to give him a 0 out of 5 for Ethical Character.

Am I wrong on this?


  1. Please allow me to add to performance review commentary, from a teacher's perspective.

    I have certainly been witness to the boss who gave little input until it was time to do so. In my field, if the principal doesn't go into your room often, it's because he thinks you're doing a good job. I wish I were generalizing... but I've seen it happen too often. Of my three principals, I only had one who gave me serious, even-handed evaluations of my classroom performance throughout the year. And I've been told by another, point-blank, that he never went into my room because he thought I was doing a good job.

    While I appreciated the complement I received (after I pried it out of him), I didn't want to be half-heartedly evaluated just to be told I'm doing a good job. I want to be evaluated to be helped in doing a better job. Frankly... if there's nothing I can improve on, then I'd better look into a job with a better pay grade. Peter Principle, and all that.

    About three years ago, a new teacher who was moving into the area from out of the country asked me about performance evaluations that are used in this state (at least by many districts here). I told her, bluntly, the following: yes, you want good reviews. "But honestly," I said, "if a principal wants to keep you, he'll find a way to keep you. If he wants to get rid of you, he'll find a way to get rid of you."

    Now that's a bit simplified, it's true. But I've seen first hand how scores can be massaged based on a boss' personal likes and dislikes.

    One additional reason you like performance reviews because, based on what I know about you, you tended to be apolitical when you gave them out. That's swell. But cynically, I believe you're in the minority. So yeah, we all hate performance reviews -- not because reviews stink, but because too many reviewers stink at reviewing.

  2. See my email to you Jim. My post exceeded 4,096 characters and I didn't have time to go back and edit it down. Overall, I agree with performance evaluations; but, I also agree that the current methodology needs to evolve. And, I echo ParliBoy that training is needed for managers to do a better job at evaluations.
    I also think executives should be evaluated on who well their subordinate managers evaluate their teams. Finally, employees need training on how to receive feedback. It's a two way street.