Show me one person who received useful feedback from his/her performance review and I'll show you nine people who didn't. In fact, you are probably one of those nine. According to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, nine out of 10 employees say that performance appraisals are not only painful, they just don't work.
Here are just a few reasons why I think performance reviews are problematic, and more importantly, what you can do differently.
Problem 1: Most reviews are written using generic forms.
These forms usually include sections titled "communication," "punctuality," "enthusiasm," "knowledge," "quality," "team work," "growth potential," "leadership," "policies and procedures," etc., etc. Granted, the idea behind generic forms is to create fairness, but the simple truth is that jobs are too diverse for the generic approach to be effective.
Solution: Create performance evaluations that match actual job responsibilities. Yes, it's more work than using a generic form, but I guarantee that the productive response from using a customized approach far outweighs the extra time required to create it. When people are evaluated based on their actual duties and tasks, the entire evaluation effort will be more focused and effective.
Problem 2: Some reviews are written by managers who are an integral part of the employee's team, while others are written by people who rarely have contact with the employee.
Both situations present problems. If the review is written by someone who has little contact with the employee, the employee rightfully deems such an evaluation uninformed and therefore worthless. If the review is written and delivered by a "team member," any unexpected criticism is likely to weaken team cohesion.
Solution: Include employee and peer input in the review process. One of the best performance evaluation programs I've seen uses three different inputs: 40 percent of the rating comes from the manager's evaluation, 30 percent comes from the employee, and 30 percent comes from the input of four of the employee's peers (the peers are selected by the employee).
The final report shows the three separate ratings, so employees are aware of how they are being viewed. The multiple input approach not only minimizes the chance of an unfair review due to manager/employee personality clashes, it also keeps employees aware that their peers are paying attention.
Problem 3: Most reviews are written annually.
This requires a manager to reach back into 12 months of memory and try to remember all aspects of a person's performance. Usually what happens is only the highlights are remembered (be they positive or negative). If the manager and employee are friends, scores are easily inflated. If not, the manager may emphasize the negative and that become the focus of the review. What's missing? The small service projects, the extra time spent helping a co-worker, or the training classes that were attended on the employee's own time.
Solution: Institute monthly checklist-style self-evaluations. Using the person's job description, create a checklist with 1-10 scales that can be completed in just a few minutes. By monthly reviewing what's expected and having to assess one's own performance, employees are reminded of what it means to be a top performer (and what it means to be mediocre).
Also include space for employees to write down things they think ought to be noticed extra time they've put in, special projects to which they've contributed, or any workshops they've taken.
If managers must still create an annual review, they simply pull out the file with these 12 self-eval forms and suddenly memory isn't a problem.
Note: If using a multiple-input system (as described earlier), it only a takes a minute for a manager to use the same checklists to assess each employee on a monthly basis.
Problem 4: Most managers are never given training in how to conduct a performance review.
When employees hear "Hey, when you have a minute, we need to talk," or "HR says we need to get this review done, so let's get it over with," they don't exactly get the impression that their manager cares.
Solution: I'll be blunt. If you're a manager, coaching and developing others is part of your job. If you've not received training on how to do these things, either seek that training or count yourself among the second-rate managers of the world. (If you refuse or mock such learning, your coworkers have probably already placed you in that category.)
In reality, coaching and employee development should be part of an ongoing dialog, not just an annual event.