Let’s put it diplomatically and take the emotion out of it: The whole performance-review process doesn’t exactly exceed expectations. Whether these annual events are meant to weed out laggards, reward achievers, assist development or act simply as a liability shield against discrimination lawsuits is anybody’s guess. Whatever their purpose, they attempt to give employees an individualized and intimate portrayal of their performance, but can end up saying more about the company than the individual. “But enough about you...”
If you hate performance reviews, that may be because you have spent more time than you can afford trying to understand whether the fact that you “met expectations” is good or bad.
Worse, you may have to write the reviews, and suffer from the awkwardness of telling someone he’s more or less living a lie. After all, saying negative things about someone can lead managers to self-incrimination, providing proof that they failed to manage someone as effectively as their managerial peers, who, in turn, inflated the grades of all their staffers.
“One reason they don’t want to tell the truth is it creates responsibility,” says Aneil Mishra, associate professor of management at the Babcock Graduate School of Management at Wake Forest University. Managers think: “If you’re not doing your job, I have to figure out a way to make it better. And if you are doing a good job, I have to figure out a way to reward you.”
Not surprising, performance reviews are lampooned online: “This employee should go far, and the sooner he starts, the better... He doesn’t have ulcers, but he’s a carrier... If you give him a penny for his thoughts, you’d get change.”
Books, such as Perfect Phrases for Performance Reviews, provide plug-and-play comments. Those employees who need improvement in the “grooming and appearance” category, for example, might be told, “Some have reported unpleasant body odour”. Note the “some have reported” construction intended to sound like fact instead of disputable opinion.
“I’m disappointed that there is such a demand for these books,” concedes Robert Bacal, one of the book’s co-authors and a consultant. “Managers aren’t intentionally deceiving employees, they’re deceiving themselves into thinking that what they’re doing is an objective process.”
Nowhere is that more evident than in the “forced ranking” systems where managers rate employees against their peers and fire the bottom percentage—better known as “rank and yank”. It’s easy to get the impression that an unqualified judge is thumbing the scales.
Wayne Ryback, a former aerospace engineer and manager, once received a call on a Saturday morning from a group vice-president telling him to downgrade one of his employees to “very good” from “excellent”.
“The group vice-president didn’t have any clue as to what this person was like,” says Ryback, who also believed the rankings were used to protect against lawsuits.
“If management were really interested in making a performance review helpful to the employee, they wouldn’t do it (only) once a year,” he says. It didn’t matter “whether or not we communicated anything intelligible to the employee.”
That’s one of Bill Savage’s beefs. The enterprise risk-management executive says reviews tend to raise more questions than answers. Once, he was told by a former manager that he was below the proverbial “bar”, which his manager conceded moved a great deal.
His other least favourite criticism: “non-team player”, which seems reserved to beat down overachievers who deserved promotions they didn’t get.
“The big problem is not so much the words,” says Savage, “but the inability of management to provide context on why they’re using those terms.”
Another method of review, the 360-degree feedback, aims to give a fuller picture of someone by corralling anonymous input from peers, subordinates and supervisors. At the manufacturing company that business-segment manager Ed Smiley works for, the 360-degree process has been suspended due to mutual backscratching. “What you don’t get is true feedback,” says Smiley.
Mike Bach, a chief operating officer, once received 360-degree feedback that only confused him and his manager. Three anonymous peers reviewed him positively for decision making; three others, not so much. No one provided specifics. His boss shrugged and said, “I guess you only won over 50% of the people.”
Brian Borkholder has no such shortcomings. For three years, the department leader has scored 29 out of 30 points total on various “metrics”, such as job knowledge, interpersonal skills and adaptability.
“I’m great!” he says, “At least that’s what my personnel file says about me.”
How does he do it year after year? Simple: Borkholder writes his own reviews. “The last three years, I’ve turned in the exact same one,” he says. “I’ve just changed the date.”
In the employee comment box, Borkholder responds, “I agree”.
(Write to Jared at firstname.lastname@example.org)