In early July NPR aired a story on the topic of performance reviews. Samuel Culbert, a UCLA business professor says that performance reviews are, “dishonest and fraudulent”. He even wrote a book on the topic – yes, a whole book on just this topic – titled Get Rid of the Performance Review.
Culbert explains his perspective that performance reviews are “total baloney” by noting that employees focus only on the good things that they accomplished in their reviews, and not what needs to be improved (by either the employee or the company).
While I agree with Culbert’s assertion that most employees hate performance reviews, I find the words dishonest and fraudulent somewhat extreme to describe the problem.
The employees aren’t lying. They are simply playing the game they’ve been taught to play. Do employees focus on their positive accomplishments? Of course they do. That’s the way the system works. The employee who volunteers in his performance review that he missed deadlines and produced an inferior product is likely to have a short-lived career.
The impact of a single review stays with the employee for an entire year, and will affect their salary, bonus, and their ability to compete for better jobs. Those who get a good assessment may let out a sigh of relief – but the relief lasts only a week or so before they start worrying about how much the bar will be raised for next year, and how they will stack up. Those with negative reviews worry even more – they worry about the financial impacts, that their boss doesn’t appreciate them, and that they might lose their job in the next round of layoffs.
In Culbert’s original article, which ran in the Wall Street Journal nearly two years ago, he makes some good points. Despite the fact that most companies tout the benefits of teamwork, and diversity, and leveraging the unique strengths of each team member, the performance review is counter to these notions. It’s Jack against Jill. Each man (or woman) for himself.
The very act of having to complete a performance review causes angst in most employees. I have known employees to spend hours during their end-of-year vacations writing (and re-writing) their accomplishments – as if what they write will actually make a difference in their assessment. It’s likely that the management team has already decided what each employee’s assessment will be.
Is the boss the bad guy here?
Culbert thinks so, but I disagree. The truth is, bosses hate performance reviews as much as the employees do.
We're talking about the bosses on the front lines – the first line managers who have to ask the employees to write up their accomplishments. They are the ones who spend grueling hours with their peer managers in ranking sessions to fight for their employees. Half of the time they lose. This is because they are being forced (by upper management and an HR system) to assess their employees with a skew that resembles a bell curve.
Worst of all, after spending months encouraging teamwork and team accomplishments, these managers have to deliver what they know will be perceived as bad news for many of their employees. In my experience, few managers look forward to this nerve-racking process.
What’s your take on performance reviews?