My friend, Pete, works for a respected company and we talk about the travails at his company (mostly so he can vent his frustration and I can hone my emerging consulting skills and be amused simultaneously.) I like Pete - we don't see each other as much as we both might like, but we talk quite a bit (and exchange emails, texts, etc.) He visited with me about one of my favorite subjects – the performance review. His unadulterated opinion is that the performance review is one of the most despicable, morale degenerating, and hostile inventions ever concocted by that undignified management evil known as human resources (Pete holds little back when he gets fired up over something visceral to him.) His annual review had come and gone with the usual nondescript fanfare. It was typically painful for both him and his boss. Here's how our conversation unfolded:
PETE: There is absolutely no element of objectivity to any part of it! It is a charade and it politically possessed. But, there is nothing anyone can do about it. Our HR department gloats about how it fairly rewards people for their results. ( He let out a bit huff of air.) A co-worker of mine bragged about his high rating and then asked me what I got. We employees aren’t supposed to discuss these things among ourselves, but it happens fairly often. There’s always a curiosity about how someone was rated compared to you. When I told him what I received, he chuckled and told me what he received. I told him I felt we were pretty equal in skill and competency, so how was it he received a higher rating than me? Well, it turns out that he spent a month writing up his review!
ME: You mean you get to write your own review?? Everyone should get 5 stars in a system like that! This reminds me of the Dilbert cartoon where Pointy Hair Manager says he will pay $10 to people for every bug they find and fix and Wally proclaims "I'm going to write me a new minivan!"
PETE: Well, we don’t write the actual review, we just document the results we achieved during the year. We are supposed to use bullet points, but after I read this guy's performance evaluation it seems that a person gets more in return for not using bullet points. That’s when he told me that how you write up your results and how verbose you are can make the difference between an average rating and a high rating. His review was a perfect example, I guess…and so is mine, at least the other way.
ME: So a person is actually penalized for following instructions – putting their results in a list and keeping to brevity? That seems unfair.
PETE: Of course it is. But, this isn’t about fairness.
ME: It’s not? I thought that is what performance management systems were all about – being fair and applying an equitable process.
PETE: You've got to be kidding. For that to happen, they would need to apply actual objective criteria and have a credible scoring system. They would also need to eliminate human involvement because any human analysis and opinion injects bias and politics into the equation. It is as much about who they like as it is about results.
ME: Pete, how do you know that favoritism and cronyism are at work? It seems that your peers and others with whom you work provide feedback that is incorporated.
PETE: You bet they do. In fact, I suspect there is quite a bit of quid pro quo that goes on among people. Heck, even I do that. We ask each other to do feedback all the time with the implicit understanding that both people will give good marks to the other. Of course, it is supposedly anonymous, but we can usually figure out who said negative things. Of course, my supervisor really doesn’t know what I do and has never seen me actually work at my job, so she relies on this information.
ME: Your boss has never seen you work? That’s crazy. What does she do? Doesn’t she have influence over your career and work?
PETE: Well, she mostly goes to meetings of one sort or another. She has never actually coded software, so she doesn’t know what I do or how well I do it except from what she hears from others. She definitely has a say in my career and promotion options. I have to basically kiss her rear end and tell her how good she is and anything else she wants to hear. Heaven forbid if I said anything negative or critical of our company or her or just about anything else.
ME: Gee, Pete, I never realized your company was so draconian. Do you really want to stay there? It sounds like you are unhappy.
PETE: All in all, it is not a bad place to work. It has good benefits and pays reasonably well. I just think it could be much better. I read in Crucial Conversations that the authors found many highly performing companies that had no formal performance management system in place. Their primary rewards were team-based. Of course, we aren’t that progressive, I guess. I just think it can be better.
ME: Of course, all companies can strive to be better. And, I have read articles like Get Rid of the Performance Review that was in the written by Samuel Culbert in the Wall Street Journal back in 2008. There is even a book by the same name and author. Many respected people acknowledge that performance management systems are detrimental to morale and highly unfair, but companies seem to be at a loss to substitute anything else. I don’t disagree with the contentions Culbert has made about the PR:
- Performance reviews focus on finding faults and placing blame.
- Performance reviews focus on deviations from some ideal as weaknesses.
- Performance reviews are about comparing employees.
- Performance reviews create a competition between boss and subordinate.
- Performance reviews are one-side-accountable and boss-dominated monologues.
- Performance reviews are thunderbolt from on high, with the boss speaking for the company.
- Performance reviews mean that if the subordinate screws up, then the subordinate suffers.
- Performance reviews allow the big boss to go on autopilot.
- The performance review is a scheduled event.
- Performance reviews give HR people too much power.
- Performance reviews don't lead to anything of substance.
- Performance reviews are hated, and managers and subordinates avoid doing them until they have to.
I just wonder what replacement or substitute companies might have in place of it? Perhaps they would ascribe to Deming’s thoughts about it.
PETE: You have good questions, Tom. I’m not sure what I will do, but I do know that something so unfair cannot sustain without having long-term impacts to morale here. And there seems to be mounting criticisms surrounding inequities of such a systems.
ME: Well, keep me informed and I wish you well, Pete. You have quite a Quixotic challenge ahead of you.