November 24, 2014

Performance Reviews Fall Out of Favor

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I think I learned about workplace reviews the hard way. Or maybe the wrong way. I never liked them. I never did them very well. I’m glad to see Time to Review Workplace Reviews on one of the New York Times blogs.

During my consulting days, when one of my favorite corporate clients, a high-level manager, paid me to help him write the memos he’d arm himself with before going through his semi-annual reviews. He really stressed over it. He’d spend weeks worrying about it, honing his memos listing his objectives and accomplishments. And he always got great reviews; he was a great manager.  His reviews did no good for him and no good for the company.

The Times story, posted by Tara Parker-Pope, quotes a clinical psychologist:

Annual reviews not only create a high level of stress for workers, he argues, but end up making everybody – bosses and subordinates – less effective at their jobs. He says reviews are so subjective – so dependent on the worker’s relationship with the boss – as to be meaningless. He says he has heard from countless workers who say their work life was ruined by an unfair review.

Later, as I was managing my company as it grew from zero to 40-some employees, the alleged need for reviews simply made me feel bad because I didn’t do them well or regularly. Some people wanted them and were disappointed. Others hated them. These were people I worked with, shoulder to shoulder, every day. I never figured out how to suddenly change personas and issue grades.

And there was that one horrible time that we tried what they call a 360 performance review system. That’s where everybody sort of reviews everybody else. Anonymously. That was awful. Try morphing a teenage popularity contest with anonymous poison pen comments and see what that does to your office politics.

So what works?

I’ve seen objective metrics, like sales, costs, expenses, calls, subscriptions, downloads, visits, page views, minutes per call, or unique visitors work pretty well, especially when they’re part of a regular planning process. I still remember how well the metrics worked in my first job, as an editor for United Press International, when they gave us scores for how many  newspapers used our stories instead of Associated Press.

I’ve seen ad-hoc instant feedback, especially the surprise bonus, quick and unexpected, work well. That was a great call, you handled that well, here’s a signed piece of paper, take somebody you like out to a nice dinner on us; that works. I’ve seen plaques (“on time and on budget”) and peer applause work.

I’ve seen a long-term management style of letting people own their jobs and their performance, without interference, work for a while, for some people.

After more than 20 years of running my own business, I still say one of the hardest things to do is good honest negative feedback. You’re supposed to give people both positive and negative, depending on their performance. Everybody sort of knows that. But it’s hard to do it in practice.

14 Comments ▼

Tim Berry


Tim Berry Tim Berry is Founder and Chairman of Palo Alto Software, Founder of Bplans, Co-Founder of Borland International, Stanford MBA, and co-founder of Have Presence. He is the author of several books and thousands of articles on business planning, small business, social media and startup business.

14 Reactions

  1. I’ve never been a fan of performance reviews… and I definitely don’t like giving them. It’s not as if I record every single thing the person did well or poorly throughout the year… sorry, but that’s just not my style. I prefer to give feedback the instant I notice something positive or negative. But I ALWAYS try to give constructive criticism.

    Nice article. Thanks.

  2. WorkSimple is on a mission to change the way people feel about performance reviews. While the system can’t promise to make offering constructive feedback any easier, it does offer a completely new approach. Instead of traditional quarterly or annual approaches to performance reviews, we enable people to create, track, and review goals in real time. The online platform also helps create a culture of recognition and collaboration.

    I’d love to have you try us out. There is a demo environment on our website: http://www.getworksimple.com

    I enjoyed reading your post!

    J.P.

  3. Giving feedback immediately is crucial. Then the employee can correctly associate the praise/criticism with the actual action. Do you really want an employee doing something wrong for 6 or 12 months before being told it is sub-standard? Do you want to delay praising positive behavior for just as long?

    A lot of the hesitancy I see with performance reviews surrounds corrective measures. Nobody wants to tell someone they are doing a poor job. Not now. Not later. However, hoping the problem will go away isn’t a viable option. I recommend a book like “Crucial Conversations” and a healthy dose of courage.

  4. Interesting theory, but until someone changes the L&I system, annual reviews will be one of the few pieces of documentation most employers actually have in the employee’s file showing poor performance. Wrongful termination suits are expensive and way more stressful than doing evaluations. Most people do a pretty good job, so most evals are easy. It’s the poor performers who cause stress. Not having documentation when it’s time to terminate will just make it worse.

  5. Kay, thanks, you make an excellent point, one that should be made, a good addition to my post. I also think Robert’s excellent comment right above it offers the right answer: yes you need to provide (and, as you point out, document) negative feedback; but you don’t have to depend on a review process to do it, right? I’d say you’re better off doing that immediately. Don’t wait for a review, and don’t depend on the review. Tim

  6. Hey Tim,

    Supervisors should be doing both immediate feedback AND annual reviews. Immediate feedback has the advantage of instant impact. Annual reviews have the advantage of thoroughness. But in my experience, leaving it up to busy supervisors to do feedbacks whenever something comes up means they will never actually do them. They’ll have good intentions, but nothing will ever make it to the employee’s file. They might, maybe, possibly say something if it’s a positive feedback, but then not write it down, have the employee sign it, and file it. Negative feedback sessions are even more rare. Having a formal process makes feedback a supervisor’s job requirement and having a clock on it kicks it into the “important and immediate” category so it actually gets done.

  7. I guess a positive feedback followed by a negative one or vice versa may balance out the situation a bit. But I agree with you, performance reviews are always a stressful time for both managers and employeees. Thank you for the interesting article.

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