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Reviewing performance reviews
June 18, 2010

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Managers hate giving them because usually they are badly prepared to give them and besides, they have so many other things to do. And performance appraisals make employees nervous. Most tell me that it usually comes down to your relationship with the boss. If you don’t get on, it can ruin your life.

Performance reviews have been around forever. As have the suggestions to get rid of them. Is that too extreme? So what do we do?

Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times says experts reckon it’s time to end performance reviews because they’re a health hazard, creating massive stress for no reason. Some say it’s better to replace them with an ongoing contract with the manager that would provide constant feedback and coaching. It’s called having a conversation, something that seems to be missing in many offices.

Dr Samuel Culbert, an author and professor of management at the UCLA Anderson School of Management in Los Angeles, says we need to get rid of them. Training managers to give them will not help. The system is just wrong, he says, and you can’t bake a cake if the milk is off. “Performance reviews instill feelings of being dominated. They send employees the message that the boss’s opinion of their performance is the key determinant of pay, assignment, and career progress. And while that opinion pretends to be objective, it is no such thing. Think about it: If performance reviews are so objective, why is it that so many people get totally different ratings simply by switching bosses? … Forget, for a minute, the damage it does on a personal level — the way it makes work lives miserable, the way it leaves employees feeling depressed and anxious, the way having to show so much tolerance at work leaves them with too little tolerance at home. Just think about what it does on a corporate level, the enormous amount of time and energy it wastes, and the way it prevents companies from tapping the innovative, outside-the-box thinking that so many employees are capable of. If only, that is, they weren’t so afraid.”

One of my favourite posts on the subject came two years ago from commentator Dan McCarthy who described 10 ways to screw up a performance appraisal. I loved his take on it because this stuff actually happens: make sure your employees have no goals, standards or clear directions and just set them loose with a pep talk; get the employee to fill in their own performance appraisal, but give them a day’s notice and don’t schedule too much time for discussion. About 10 minutes is more than enough. How many performance reviews have you had that are like that?

Of course, employees need to be appraised and evaluated. This is why HR managers say performance appraisals are the way to go. In fact, they have put out a survey, reported here, saying that three out of four employees found them valuable. Yeah right. As if we can trust any HR manager. I have always argued that performance appraisals are a creation of the human resources industry. Many HR managers are highly political and obsessed with bureaucratic form-filling. They remind me of Soviet cadres who used to spout the ideology and then do the exact opposite, as required by their political masters.

I am not against performance appraisals per se. We need some sort of method to evaluate learning opportunities, career paths and succession planning. Maybe we need to tweak the system to create an ongoing conversation with the manager, and perhaps recognise other ways of rewarding performance outside of compensation.

Whatever the answer, the system is not working. We need something to replace it.

How have you found performance appraisals? Are they worth it or ar they a waste of time? Would you get rid of them? How would you fix them? Let’s hear some ideas.

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