Wednesday, May 19, 2010

 

Performance Reviews

We're coming up on performance review time for the administrative and staff ranks. That means I have to have my annual internal debate about performance reviews. (Apparently, it's "ambivalence week" here at Dean Dad HQ.)

As many folks have pointed out, performance reviews are deeply flawed in the best of times, and often just destructive. There's no end of reasons for that.

- They only occur once per year. That leads to predictable temporal distortions -- the most recent stuff outweighs the older stuff -- and some unavoidable discontinuity.

- They reflect only what the manager sees, and/or how the manager sees it. Depending on the manager, this can be a real problem.

- They're "one size fits all," even though jobs are very different. In many cases, there's only one person in an entire job category, so any basis for comparison will necessarily be arbitrary.

- Clean measures of performance are often absent. Managing creative people is not like selling cars.

- They're undeniable sources of tension.

And yet, we keep doing them. Why would otherwise intelligent people keep using such a flawed system?

Because performance evaluations aren't just for the benefit of the employee. They're also indispensable elements of the paper trail you'll need if you need to rank people, whether for promotion or for termination. They give the organization protective legal cover.

That's why the oft-heard suggestion of "just replace them with regular informal coaching," which sounds nice, rarely gets picked up. Informal discussions don't show up in personnel files. That means that if you have to lower the boom on someone, there's nothing in the file to defend a claim of arbitrary and capricious (or discriminatory) decisionmaking.

As with outcomes assessment and student grades, there's a tension between the formative and the evaluative functions. Yes, it's great when an evaluation serves as a teaching moment and results in better performance. I actually had that happen to me at my last job once. My boss made a negative comment that struck me as random and mean at the time, but as I stewed for a few days, I gradually figured out what was behind it. Subsequently I made some adjustments, and we both noticed the improvement. So yes, it can happen.

But when that doesn't work, and someone just isn't working out, you'd better have a paper trail.

The usual rebuttal to that involves documenting incidents as they occur, but that presumes that individual incidents are the issue. Sometimes they are, but frequently the issue is a longstanding pattern. Showing up late once means nothing; it happens to everyone from time to time. Showing up late every day is something else altogether. A single awkward or hostile interaction could be the result of crossed wires, but a pattern of them usually indicates something more fundamental. By definition, patterns only show up over time. A document specifically intended to cover a span of time can capture that in a way that a single-incident document just can't.

So these awful, draining, semi-accurate documents survive. They're not my favorite task -- not by a long shot -- but I know that if they don't get done, there'll be hell to pay. They're almost as bad as not doing them.
We're coming up on performance review time for the administrative and staff ranks. That means I have to have my annual internal debate about performance reviews. (Apparently, it's "ambivalence week" here at Dean Dad HQ.)

As many folks have pointed out, performance reviews are deeply flawed in the best of times, and often just destructive. There's no end of reasons for that.

- They only occur once per year. That leads to predictable temporal distortions -- the most recent stuff outweighs the older stuff -- and some unavoidable discontinuity.

- They reflect only what the manager sees, and/or how the manager sees it. Depending on the manager, this can be a real problem.

- They're "one size fits all," even though jobs are very different. In many cases, there's only one person in an entire job category, so any basis for comparison will necessarily be arbitrary.

- Clean measures of performance are often absent. Managing creative people is not like selling cars.

- They're undeniable sources of tension.

And yet, we keep doing them. Why would otherwise intelligent people keep using such a flawed system?

Because performance evaluations aren't just for the benefit of the employee. They're also indispensable elements of the paper trail you'll need if you need to rank people, whether for promotion or for termination. They give the organization protective legal cover.

That's why the oft-heard suggestion of "just replace them with regular informal coaching," which sounds nice, rarely gets picked up. Informal discussions don't show up in personnel files. That means that if you have to lower the boom on someone, there's nothing in the file to defend a claim of arbitrary and capricious (or discriminatory) decisionmaking.

As with outcomes assessment and student grades, there's a tension between the formative and the evaluative functions. Yes, it's great when an evaluation serves as a teaching moment and results in better performance. I actually had that happen to me at my last job once. My boss made a negative comment that struck me as random and mean at the time, but as I stewed for a few days, I gradually figured out what was behind it. Subsequently I made some adjustments, and we both noticed the improvement. So yes, it can happen.

But when that doesn't work, and someone just isn't working out, you'd better have a paper trail.

The usual rebuttal to that involves documenting incidents as they occur, but that presumes that individual incidents are the issue. Sometimes they are, but frequently the issue is a longstanding pattern. Showing up late once means nothing; it happens to everyone from time to time. Showing up late every day is something else altogether. A single awkward or hostile interaction could be the result of crossed wires, but a pattern of them usually indicates something more fundamental. By definition, patterns only show up over time. A document specifically intended to cover a span of time can capture that in a way that a single-incident document just can't.

So these awful, draining, semi-accurate documents survive. They're not my favorite task -- not by a long shot -- but I know that if they don't get done, there'll be hell to pay. They're almost as bad as not doing them.

Comments:
i have vocalized my view on performance reviews on here before.

performance reviews should be filled out and taken seriously by all members of the office, for all members of the office (bosses included). if you have X employees in a department and Y managers, each employee should have the option of filling out X + Y evaluations (even evaluating themselves). they don't have to evaluate everyone, but they should get the option.

one of my biggest complaints with employee evaluations is that bosses/managers/whatever will not cite or investigate problems that they [themselves] are guilty of. if a boss consistently arrives late (let's say a dept manager whose boss is a dean, and the dean and he/she work in separate buildings), why would he/she call out other employees for working < 40 hours? if a manager puts forth a subpar effort, do you think he/she is going to call others out for doing the same? i'd love to hear your views/stories on this subject DD, because as a dean, you have to know that it is rampant.

the best solution (IMO) is to let employees evaluate each other, and the manager can read these evaluations. he/she would then know that other workers are fully aware of subpar performances by a bad coworker, and that he/she [manager] can't just assume that no one has noticed. some departments do this at our state's big U, but the process doesn't hold as much water as it should.

a manager isn't going to know where someone is slacking. the guy/girl who works with him every day can give much better insight.

what's worse is that most evaluations have no relation to raises. someone who gets a perfect score will get a 3% raise, as will the people who get less-than-desirable evaluation scores. to top it off, there are people who should be fired immediately (and management knows this), and who actually produce negative productivity (more work for others), but they will keep their job because a dep't doesn't want to lose some of their budget.
 
Great post! Lots of people go through the Annual Annual Reviews Debate (if only "debate" started with G so that the acronym could be AARG!).

You're spot on with the reasons performance reviews are flawed. okie.floyd's suggestion of having employees review each other is a good one — essentially 360° reviews as practiced by a lot of big companies — but it limits the potential for coaching that can occur as part of the review cycle.

I'd love for you to take a look at Rypple as a solution to this problem. We strongly agree with the coaching approach and have solved the problem of the "informal" nature.

Three points:

- Rypple is the best social recognition tool on the web. It's perfect for regularly recognizing the achievements of your colleagues in a feed that everyone in the organization can see. Lots of research out there to support praise and recognition as powerful motivators (sometimes even more powerful than money — see The McKinsey Quarterly's Motivating People: Getting Beyond Money).

- Rypple is the best microfeedback tool on the web. Ask your team and mentors short, focused questions and get back honest, anonymous, and actionable responses. Rypple also supports quick peer reviews, so you can get immediate feedback from an employees colleagues. Lots of research here too supporting regular feedback as one of the most powerful drivers of success (see Dr. Marshall Goldsmith on followup in Leadership is a Contact Sport - PDF).

- Rypple is the best team coaching and leadership tool on the web. Track actions, notes, and kudos in one place. Use the 1:1 worksheets to record the outcome of fast, focused, regular coaching sessions (that become part of the HR file!). Quickly summarize to make quarterly and annual reviews a breeze. Check out Dr. Sam Culbert Wall Street Journal article Yes, Everyone Really Does Hate Performance Reviews for a strong argument in favor of regular coaching conversations.

Would love your feedback on the tool! Does it solve the problems you're facing? Could it replace your much maligned performance review process?

Thanks!

Jay Goldman
Head of Marketing
Rypple
 
I don't mind doing my performance review. My supervisor is very good at giving feedback throughout the year, but I like that the performance review gives my higher-ups a chance to see how I'm doing. The thing that kills me, though, is that, at our college at least, performance reviews don't have the least effect on raises. Staff all get the same measly COLA (and not even that this year), regardless of performance. It's demoralizing and provides little incentive to go the extra mile.
 
As someone whose wife has worked in the same job for 5 years and never received an official performance review, I think they're great. She thinks she deserves a raise, but she has little beyond subtle signals from her boss to figure out whether he agrees.

While she is trying to read those subtle signals, I know that I am completely oblivious to any such signals. So having something written down on paper for me to read helps me understand what I'm doing right and what I need to do better. As somebody on the other side of the desk, I've gotta say that formal reviews are indispensable.
 
I receive one annual review a year as an adjunct and I think it is a total waste. It is not very thorough and is just an observation. I have had very thorough observations before and feel, as much as I hate them, that this is the way to go. The problem is most chairs and faculty do not have the time to perform a proper review. With most of the college teaching force adjunct, it would make sense to allocate the proper time.
 
The following blog on reviews appeared in today's NY Times.
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/17/time-to-review-workplace-reviews/?src=me&ref=homepage
 
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