The non-practical types love to talk about killing performance reviews. Professors and thought-leaders can go on for hours picking apart every last imperfection and preaching about utopian workplaces where they would be unnecessary. The national media picks it up and next thing you know everyone has an opinion. Meanwhile those of us who keep the trains running are left to deal with the backlash.
That is a special part of working in HR, our work impacts everyone. If you tell a new dinner party friend that you work in network engineering it might kill the conversation, but tell them you work in HR and there will be questions and opinions for the rest of the night. Just the other day a man named Rob asked what I do. My answer kicked off a five minute diatribe on the pointlessness of performance reviews, that illogically wound itself to a conclusion that reviews are some vestigial corporate BS. BS that survives only because management hasn’t gotten around to excising it yet.
I was left a little speechless, I’d known Rob for 5 minutes and so far our entire relationship had been spent exploring why my work is pointless. If you’ve been in HR long enough you have probably faced a similar situation. So with that in mind I set out to articulate a defense of performance reviews, so the next time I will be ready. Here is what I wish I would have said to Rob.
Ya, you’re right, performance reviews stink. I find them uncomfortable and it’s my job. Often the person giving the review makes a huge mess of the whole thing and I wish I could review them on their review. In the end no matter how well or poorly reviews are done, they will always require one person to stand in judgement of another person, and that will always stink.
But unfortunately, because I’m an HR professional and not a professor, I have to think about more than what’s wrong with performance reviews, I have to think about the alternative.
You see the dirty little secret about performance reviews is that they will never stop happening even if you stop calling them that and stop forcing people to do them. The judgement, the ranking, the decisions about pay all still happen, they need to happen, the best you’ll ever do is sweep them under the rug. Your superiors will still be judging you everyday.
Removing the sharp pain of hard conversations about your performance will leave you with the chronic uncertainty about how you’re doing and how you’re being judged. You’ll just sit, wait and wonder until you’re either promoted or fired.
Performance reviews are imperfect, but done well they accomplish two very important things, fairness and transparency.
Fairness is so important, it is deeply ingrained in all of us. Nothing drives us to irrational tantrums like the feeling we aren’t being treated fairly. You should probably watch this video of a monkey throwing a tantrum when it thinks it is being treated unfairly.
We understand fairness, but you might be surprised by the definition.
fair: fer/ adjective 1. in accordance with the rules or standards; legitimate.
So creating fairness is about created standards and rules that can be followed. When everyone is treated by the same standards everything feels fair. Jill doesn’t get paid in cucumbers while Jack gets grapes (did you watch the monkey video? Seriously, watch it).
Performance reviews take the judgement and ranking that would be happening anyways and bring them into the light so biases can be removed and emotionless formulas can be applied. We might not like the outcome of being evaluated, but when it is done fairly at least we can accept it.
We are all adults, we all have hopes and dreams, and we all want to know where we stand.
One of the most popular alternatives to performance reviews is the idea of real-time feedback. I think real time feedback is great (well to a certain extent it is just what managers should have been doing all along, but still it is great). The problem is that real time feedback does not create the same transparency as the occasional big picture conversation where both sides share their long term goals.
In the forestry industry a manager could give real time feedback to change how you’re pruning the spruce trees. That same manager in a performance review would talk about how a quarter of the forest was on the verge of bursting into flames.
Maybe the spruce pruning had to do with the fire danger, but we can’t expect ourselves or our reports to bring all those little pieces of feedback together to see the big picture. Everyone knows we can’t see the forest for the trees.
On the other side, real time feedback is always about improvement, but sometimes high performers need to be told that despite all the constructive criticism they have gotten over the last year they are a rising star. When do you talk about goals and promotion paths with your best employees if not in a performance review?
Performance reviews will always be hard, at a certain point we just need to accept it. Parts of life are a competition and there are winners and losers. As much as some people might like to get rid of that the best they’ll ever do is sweep it under the rug.
Despite the stress of listening to your nervous boss talk about why you are a “3 in proactive,” it is better than being unhappy with your raise and looking over at Jill in the next cubicle chowing down on a bucket full of grapes (seriously watch the monkey video).