The alleged primary purpose of performance reviews is to enlighten subordinates about what they should be doing better or differently. But too often they are used as intimidation aimed at preserving the boss's authority and power advantage. This defeats the purpose of the review and worse, harms employee morale.
The Wall Street Journal has a good article out this week on why performance evaluations so often do not work. First and foremost in my mind is this: Performance reviews often just are not very accurate or useful. There are many reasons for this.
- First, they are subjective but they try not to be. - I don't care how objective the HR department designed them to attempt to be, they always end up being subjective. The fact that you have your managers rate performance on a numeric scale doesn't change this fact. Reviews that are designed to eliminate subjectivity in an inherently subjective task actually do more harm than good.
- Managers hate doing evaluations as much as employees hate getting them. - Both managers and employees feel the process is reminiscent of getting a report card and therefore, somewhat demeaning. As a result, managers put off doing evaluations until the last minute and don't really put valuable thought into the process.
- Managers don't want to be the bad guy/gal. - Ask any employment lawyer and they will tell you about case after case of litigation involving a company that claims the employee in question was a long term problem who was never a good performer BUT has a record of good (if not excellent) employee evaluations. The simple fact is that not many managers relish the idea of telling their employees what they are doing wrong or possibly harming the employee's chance for a bonus or a raise. So they glaze over problems and don't document them as they should.
- Who designs these things? - Possibly in an effort to address the problem in item one, above, employee reviews have become so byzantine as to be utterly useless. Categories and subcategories with numerical scales and other nonsense. It ends up not really meaning that much frankly.
So what is the solution? Well the WSJ has some good recommendations regarding up and down reviews and I think those ideas would be helpful. My own thoughts are to keep it simple. Feedback is important but structure always isn't. Try taking out a blank sheet of paper and simply writing a thoughtful letter to subordinates a few times a year addressing how they are doing. Address both what they are doing well and pick one or two things that they could improve on and how you as the manager would like to help them do that.
I know some HR types will disagree with this (and have when I have spoken on this topic) and point out that this practice could lead to many different types and levels of quality among reviews throughout the organization. And I suppose this is true to an extent. Although I would point out that whoever is doing the manager's review should be looking at the evaluations the manager writes and, if necessary, point out any weaknesses in this area and working with the manager on this issue if necessary.
Furthermore, if the goal of your evaluation system has devolved into the main goal being making all evaluations look like the same shade of vanilla so that they can't ever be used against you in a legal action as evidence of disparate treatment, just stop doing them.
Here is the full WSJ article.