The View from HR

Bad performance reviews come in many forms

August 11, 2012 

Are you happy with the performance review process at your company?

Of course not. Unless it is brand new with insufficient time to fail, your performance review system probably does not work as designed.

A good performance management process establishes agreed-upon goals, measures attainment, identifies growth areas, removes hurdles, reinforces good behaviors and makes the employee more valuable.

Bad reviews come in several categories. The “I have to get these done so my people can get a raise” review, the “got to do this so we have a defense to a legal claim” review, and, my favorite, the “does this person play well in the sandbox?” review. Like the nesting temperature of the Spanish sparrow, these reviews have a narrow importance, but the bigger opportunities missed are much more significant.

Unfortunately, too many managers see performance reviews as a way to avoid real issues and important conversations. The review is seen as the end product rather than a tool to improve the conversation; the form, ratings, checkboxes and prepared questions become the conversation.

Have you seen managers place an “x” in the five-point scale rating box to the far left side of the “four”? What they mean is “you are really a ‘three’ and I just do not want to tell you.” That is a broken system.

Real conversations

Going out on a limb here, no one can write a form or review that fits every employee well. By “fit” I mean providing the right combination of correction, reinforcement, ways to improve, career planning, and alignment with company and personal objectives customized for this person in a way they can hear.

The only good performance management process I know is a continuous series of real conversations. What is working well? What should be on your plate for the next 30/60/90 days? What is your role in supporting company/department goals? What do you need to succeed? What hurdles need to be removed? In other words, real conversations.

Our organization has a performance management form designed by very good HR professionals (we do HR for a living). It helps frame some of the important issues such as goals for the coming year. But if that document was the primary conversation we had with each employee about growing their impact on our mission and objectives, it too would fail.

Preventive maintenance

If you can only do a traditional review (that ends up in a file) or a series of regular conversations on the most important issues, which would you pick? You know my answer. Ideally, do both, even if there is no form and you both simply keep notes of the conversations.

To employees with managers who avoid real conversations, you can ask for the meeting, you can bring up the right issues and you can show the manager you welcome these conversations, because it will improve your value (and maybe even your pay and progress).

Performance management is best viewed as an ongoing conversation with preventive maintenance, not an annual tooth extraction without benefit of an anesthetic.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.

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