Performance appraisals don't work

Jul 08 2010 by Dan Bobinski Print This Article

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.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Daniel Bobinski teaches teams and individuals how to use emotional intelligence and how to create high impact training. He’s also a best-selling author, a popular speaker, and he loves helping teams and individuals achieve workplace excellence

Older Comments

Performance appraisals, according to the theory, are supposed to be a dialogue and focus on the future. In reality, they are a way for managers to exert control over their workers and to impose their view of the employee on the employee. The employee could have the best case in the world for a promotion but if the appraising manager things you are useless, then you are useless and nothing is going to change that. Also, if the appraisal is linked to rewards and pay increases, such things are usually limited so no matter what the appraising manager things, they have to fit their employees into specific boxes - two excellent, majority satisfactory, a few unsatisfactory, for example - bacause that is all the budget allows.

The whole thing is a farce and a waste of time. Most managers don't want to do them, most employees don't want to do them, simply because they don't actually do what they are supposed to do and employees are sick of being put into boxes that their employer thinks are appropriate, rather than being seen as an individual who can actually adapt to circumstances and do great things. It is in the interests of industry and commerce to ensure their employees think they are useless because that means they can keep wages down, refuse training and development and convince their staff that they are, in fact, useless.

Of course, this backfires spectacularly on the business, but this is not linked to the way employees are treated and appraised, it is linked directly to the employees.

Cheryl-Anne London, UK

Good identification of common problems with performance appraisal. I think another problem is that managers see their role as delivering the news. This is hard to do for many managers. It is much easier to draw performance information out of the employee with questions like: 'How did you think you did on this project?' 'What do you feel went well and not so well?' 'What might you do better next time?'

More generally, I advise asking employees to come to performance review meetings prepared to lead the discussion, starting with what went well, then moving onto what didn't and then what they plan to do differently.

The main reason that performance reviews are so badly handled is that the manager is expected to do most of the talking. This just accentuates the power gap between the two and puts the employee in defensive mode. Also, because managers manage by exception, a culture is created whereby the focus is one-sidedly on problems.

To turn this around, managers need to operate more in asking and coaching mode. This means more listening and less telling, a style that makes it easier for both sides.

Mitch McCrimmon Toronto

Employee engagement: the key toperformance appraisals. It's amazing that such dinosaurs (performance review systems, not the people) are still around. They must be, however, since a book has been published called “Get Rid of Performance Reviews’. Yet despite the outcry against reviews, there's nothing wrong with them that can't be fixed by getting managers off of center stage. Top management can fix the basic problems the review system faces. Critics argue that performance reviews not only don't accomplish what they're supposed to do - that is, improve performance, enhance employee skills and achieve planned outcomes - they have unintended negative consequences. In many cases, unfortunately, that's true. But it doesn't have to be that way. What companies need to abolish is not performance review itself, but the idea that it's a “management tool. Here are some practiced paradigms that must be discarded: Performance Review is designed, as the name suggests, in support of managers. If you believe this, your management is one of the roadblocks to exceptional performance. The most useful performance review support work relationships between employees (managers too are employees). Both parties need to address the question of how to best serve the goals and outcomes and align their work efforts. Performance review is a management tool. Managers are not necessarily the best qualified to assess their staff’s accomplishments. In fact, they may have a very limited or biased view. A more complete and accurate picture results when employees and managers seek feedback from a variety of customers, team leaders, professional peers, and others inside or from outside the unit. Performance reviews include judgments from a “higher authority”. Judgments produce compliant workers â€' people who are told what to do â€' not innovative ones. People hate performance reviews because most of them are fault-finding. How much better to ask, “What did we learn from this? What can we each do different the next time?” The manager is responsible for obtaining input from the employees. 21st century employees can’t assume a passive role in performance review, providing “tough-minded” self-assessments and valuable insights only on request. They must take the initiative, soliciting feedback from their managers and others. No risk taking to solicit the complete picture and no learning means no improvements. Managers should be trained in performance reviews, then prepare their employees for the process. If performance review is to be a productive partnership with employees taking the active role and both parties committed to exchanging knowledge and ideas, managers and employee need to be trained together.

Milan Moravec California USA

These so called appraisals are totally useless, they allow for actual lazy employees to be told how well they are doing when in fact all they do is text and make personal calls as well as chatting all day to their co workers. while the person who receives a poor performance review is actually doing a much better job than the ones who are told they are fantastic just because they can butter up the managers and supervisors. this is a massive problem in my work where lazy people get away with it. Employers need to actually talk more to their staff rather than focusing all on negativity. No wonder so many people end up with mental health issues through work. Due to poor management and leadership skills.