Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Grade Inflation, Employee Edition

This time of year brings with it the annual flood of program reviews, employee evaluations, and end-of-year wrap-ups. (Between the academic year and the fiscal year, we hit the 'reset' button on July 1.) That means that the second half of June becomes an exercise in speed reading and diplomacy.

I'm noticing again a pronounced tendency towards internal grade inflation. In informal conversation, it's easy to get some fascinating three-dimensional portraits of employees. But in writing, almost everybody is practically perfect in every way. We've blasted right past Lake Wobegon and entered Mary Poppins territory.

When I've asked why people routinely give “walks on water” formal evaluations to nothing-special employees, I usually get one of the following:

- Less than stellar evaluations are bad for morale. Since you can't realistically fire them, you don't want to anger them. The only thing worse than a mediocre employee is a mediocre employee with an attitude.

- Hey, we don't pay very much, so let's offer praise. It's better than nothing.

- Okay, but let others go first. I don't want to be the asshole.

- I don't want to be accused of discrimination/favoritism/hypocrisy when I lower the boom. It's not worth it.

- We don't have the money for the professional development they'd need, so screw it.

These each have just enough truth in them to be annoying, but not nearly enough to carry the argument. And they all fail to address the very real long-term cost of not confronting issues when they arise.

Yes, people get cranky when they're told that they're falling short. Sometimes they sulk, sometimes they lash out, sometimes they retaliate. But when they aren't told, one of two things tends to happen. One group will secretly feel guilty that they're getting away with something, which leads to all kinds of weird psychodramas as they enact the punishment they kinda know they deserve on others. (Over the long term, this is death to morale anyway.) The rest will just go merrily on their way, blithely and falsely convinced that all is well. Repeat that cycle for several years, and you get some long-entrenched low performers you can't tell anything. Organizationally, this is a disaster.

(Besides, at a really basic level, dealing with occasional crankiness is simply part of the job. If you're unwilling to have the occasional difficult conversation, you have no business managing anybody.)

In the land of 'progressive discipline,' moving out a low performer becomes incredibly expensive and time-consuming when the paper trail from the past shows nothing but conflict-avoidant happy-face evaluations. In the meantime, disaster unfolds.

Addressing the issues in a timely way is fairer on both sides. It gives the employee fair warning that something is wrong, and in enough time to try to fix it. (Alternately, it gives the employee fair warning that s/he is being misinterpreted; I've seen that, too.) It gives the organization at least the possibility of improved performance. And it gives the manager the beginning of the necessary documentation for eventually moving somebody out, if the needed improvement isn't forthcoming.

The resource-based objections – either salary or professional development – are properly separate issues. If you aren't satisfied with your pay, the way to deal with that is not to do a half-assed job; it's to find another job. (One of the mottoes that got me through my adjuncting days was “For what they pay me, they're lucky if I show up sober!” But I always did.) In my observation, the people who complain the loudest about salaries usually aren't the ones who most deserve more. The most deserving usually move up or move on. And while it's conceptually possible that a little more professional development money could make the occasional difference, in practice it usually makes the most impact on people who are already good. It can make the good better, but I've never seen it make the marginal good. It's possible, but I've never seen it.

The 'you first' objection is the most frustrating. Since it's a tall order to shift an entire culture at once, it tends to happen in fits and starts, which is a nice way of saying 'unevenly.' The folks whose managers adopt the new candor will object, with some justification, that they're being singled out. It's the right long term move, but the transition is bumpy and difficult. Any suggestions from wise and worldly readers who've seen this transition happen successfully would be appreciated.

So I dive into the pile, prepared to read things that I know simply aren't true, and having to decide which battles are actually worth picking. July 1 can't come fast enough.