Performance Reviews: Better Than Nothin’

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My manager announced a week ago that my unit would be undergoing performance reviews. This would not be news at most American corporations; from Whirlpool to IBM, General Electric to Microsoft, regular reviews by management of staff performance have long been, well, regular. But my manager may as well have told us that the Pope had just agreed to blog on Time.com. Truth hurts, but here it is: the organization I work for prides itself on communicating the news to the people, but when it comes to communicating with its staff, it’s as inscrutable as the Latin mass.

Having never in my six years at TIME undergone a performance review, I thought I’d prepare with a little research. I reached out to George Lenard, an employment lawyer in Chesterfield, Mo. He pointed me to articles he’s collected on his excellent (and funny) blog, George’s Employment Blawg (which is how lawyers spell blog–you get it). I came away feeling not a little worried.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m ecstatic that we’re being reviewed. Contrary to many employers’ beliefs, we workers like to know how we’re doing. We want clear assessments, constructive criticism, praise and acknowledgment if we deserve it, and, most of all, advice on improving at our jobs and building our careers.

But research shows that most employers don’t meet those seemingly simple needs. Three in 10 employees feel performance reviews actually improve performance, according to a study of large companies by Watson Wyatt. In other words, most employers fail at their own performance reviews.

One major problem seems to be a lack of standardization. One boss might hold a five-minute chat over coffee and consider it done, while another subjects his worker to a two-hour conference guided by a spreadsheet with a point system. Experts seem to think that the more rigorous and clear the guidelines, the better–for both parties.

But even black-and-white guidelines don’t eradicate bias. According to an article about bias in performance reviews on Management-Issues.com,

…of the 5,970 evaluated employees, 80 percent received an “above-average” rating from at least one boss. Yet of those who received this “above-average” rating from one boss, 30 percent of the other bosses rated the same person in the bottom third of the distribution.

So one manager’s star worker was another manager’s lazy, good-for-nothing yahoo. The worker’s performance didn’t change; the manager did.

The most rigorous of systems–forced rankings, which slot workers into performance quartiles and reward (or punish) them accordingly–appears to be going out of style, in part because of legal snags. Lenard writes in an e-mail to me:

The legal risks include “grade inflation.” An employee terminated for “poor performance” may have a performance appraisal paper trail showing good or even excellent performance. Such a contradiction, coming directly from the employer’s personnel files, is great ammunition for lawyers to use in proving “pretext,” which is one of the primary ways of proving discrimination. Pretext means that the reason given for the challenged employment decision, here termination for poor performance, is untrue. From this, a jury may reasonably infer that the true reason was a discriminatory one (assuming the terminated employee established a prima facie case, which is not that difficult.) You might be surprised how often this occurs.

If forced rankings are out, 360 reviews are in, though these, too, are not free from controversy. Susan Heathfield explains on About.com:

360 degree feedback is a method and a tool that provides each employee the opportunity to receive performance feedback from his or her supervisor and four to eight peers, reporting staff members, coworkers and customers. Most 360 degree feedback tools are also responded to by each individual in a self assessment. 360 degree feedback allows each individual to understand how his effectiveness as an employee, coworker, or staff member is viewed by others. The most effective 360 degree feedback processes provide feedback that is based on behaviors that other employees can see.

She adds,

Implemented with care and training to enable people to better serve customers and develop their own careers, 360 degree feedback is a positive addition to your performance management system. Started haphazardly, because it’s the current flavor in organizations, or because “everyone” else is doing it, 360 feedback will create a disaster from which you will require months and possibly years, to recover.

Months or years to recover from a performance review? …and that’s just the employer! Imagine the damage to a mere worker’s career caused by a flawed system of reviews. Still, I feel flawed performance reviews are better than none. There’s always the chance my supervisor will be biased in my favor. Especially after I give him a bottle of my family sake.

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