Need Some Work,
Don't Meet Potential
2007; Page B1
Let's put it diplomatically and take the emotion out of it:
The whole performance-review process, now in season, doesn't exactly exceed
Whether these annual events are meant to weed out laggards,
reward achievers, assist development or act simply as a liability shield
against discrimination lawsuits is anybody's guess. Whatever their purpose,
they attempt to give employees an individualized and intimate portrayal of
their performance, but can end up saying more about the company than the individual.
"But enough about you ..."
If you hate performance reviews, that may be because you have
spent more time than you can afford trying to understand whether the fact you
"met expectations" is good or bad.
Worse, you may have to write the reviews, and suffer from the
awkwardness of telling someone he's more or less living a lie. After all,
saying negative things about someone can lead managers to self-incrimination,
providing proof that they failed to manage someone as effectively as their
managerial peers, who, in turn, inflated the grades of all their staffers.
"One reason they don't want to tell the truth is it
creates responsibility," says Aneil Mishra, associate professor of management at the Babcock
Graduate School of Management at Wake
Managers think: "If you're not doing your job, I have to figure out a
way to make it better. And if you are doing a good job, I have to figure out
a way to reward you."
Not surprising, performance reviews are lampooned online:
"This employee should go far, and the sooner he starts,
the better. ... He doesn't have ulcers, but he's a carrier. ... If you give
him a penny for his thoughts, you'd get change."
Books, such as "Perfect Phrases for Performance
Reviews," provide plug-and-play comments. Those employees who need
improvement in the "grooming and appearance" category, for example,
might be told, "Some have reported unpleasant body odor." Note the
"some have reported" construction intended to sound like fact
instead of disputable opinion.
"I'm disappointed that there is such a demand for these
books," concedes Robert Bacal, one of the
book's co-authors and a consultant. "Managers aren't intentionally
deceiving employees, they're deceiving themselves into thinking that what
they're doing is an objective process."
Nowhere is that more evident than in the "forced
ranking" systems where managers rate employees against their peers and
fire the bottom percentage -- better known as "rank and yank." It's
easy to get the impression that an unqualified judge is thumbing the scales.
Wayne Ryback, a former aerospace
engineer and manager, once received a call on a Saturday morning from a group
vice president telling him to downgrade one of his employees to "very
good" from "excellent."
"The group vice president didn't have any clue as to what
this person was like," says Mr. Ryback, who
also believed the rankings were used to protect against lawsuits.
"If management were really interested in making a
performance review helpful to the employee, they wouldn't do it [only] once a
year," he says. It didn't matter "whether or not we communicated
anything intelligible to the employee."
That's one of Bill Savage's beefs. The enterprise
risk-management executive says reviews tend to raise more questions than
answers. Once he was told by a former manager that he was below the
proverbial "bar," which his manager conceded moved a great deal.
His other least favorite criticism: "nonteam
player," which seems reserved to beat down overachievers who deserved
promotions they didn't get.
"The big problem is not so much the words," says Mr.
Savage, "but the inability of management to provide context on why
they're using those terms."
Another method of review, the 360-degree feedback, aims to
give a fuller picture of someone by corralling anonymous input from peers,
subordinates and supervisors. At the manufacturing company that
business-segment manager Ed Smiley works for, the 360-degree process has been
suspended due to mutual back-scratching. "What you don't get is true
feedback," says Mr. Smiley.
Mike Bach, a chief operating officer, once received 360-degree
feedback that only confused him and his manager. Three anonymous peers
reviewed him positively for decision making; three others, not so much. No
one provided specifics. His boss shrugged and said, "I guess you only
won over 50% of the people."
Brian Borkholder has no such
shortcomings. For three years, the department leader has scored 29 out of 30
points total on various "metrics," such as job knowledge,
interpersonal skills and adaptability.
"I'm great!" he says, "At least that's what my
personnel file says about me."
How does he do it year after year? Simple: Mr. Borkholder writes his own reviews. "The last three
years, I've turned in the exact same one," he says. "I've just
changed the date."
In the employee comment box, Mr. Borkholder
responds, "I agree."