How To Do Performance Reviews Right
Above all, don’t rely on employees’ self-evaluations.
With summer upon us and the year half over, many managers and employees are engaging in that oft-criticized, much maligned, but still necessary exercise: performance evaluation.
Yes, formal evaluations generally happen at the end of the calendar year, but many companies require their managers to conduct midterm evaluations as well, to help avoid year-end surprises.
Be it at mid-year or year end, a common component of these evaluations is the employee’s self-assessment. In some cases, these self-assessments just amount to the employee submitting a list of accomplishments to his or her manager. Increasingly, though, they’re institutionalized as part of a company’s formal performance evaluation document. For every performance criterion, there’s space for the employee’s rating and comments as well as for the manager’s.
In theory, self-assessments serve a useful purpose. They give employees an opportunity to objectively reflect on their performance, to consider what they’ve done well and where they’ve fallen short, and then to share their perspective with their manager. And, in theory, the manager captures the employee’s perspective as one of many data points that shape the ultimate evaluation.
But it’s not like that in reality. The performance evaluation process is actually among the most hypocritical management activities there are. Chief executives and the people around them publicly proclaim the importance of performance assessment and development, but all too often they fail to practice what they preach. They have to be strong-armed by their human resources departments to actually prepare their reviews for their own direct reports.
Further down in the organization, line managers are implored by those same top executives to conduct thoughtful performance reviews for their own staff–and they find themselves short on time and searching for shortcuts.
That’s where self-assessments cease to be just a data point and instead practically become the review itself. It works like this: A manager takes the employee’s self-assessment, adds some superficial comments or check marks and assigns a final performance rating. Presto! A performance review that satisfies human resources, with a bare minimum of the manager’s effort.
And people wonder why employees think evaluations are ridiculous.
When managers commandeer their employees’ self-assessments and turn them, with little or no modification, into their own final reviews, they do a great disservice to both those employees and the company. That’s because those self-assessments are missing key sources of constructive feedback. No matter how objective or perceptive an employee is, his self-assessment is unlikely to capture the diversity of perspectives that the manager should be compiling from customers, colleagues and, where applicable, subordinates–not to mention the manager’s own notes and recollections.
The employee is robbed of what could have been game-changing feedback, hindering his own career ambitions. And the company is deprived of a genuine performance evaluation and improvement mechanism, thwarting its efforts to cultivate and retain talent.
Layer on top of all that the employee’s ire at a performance review process gone dreadfully awry, and you have a recipe for a workforce that grows increasingly distrustful of its superiors and skeptical of those superiors’ leadership capacity. Moreover if you think that attitude will go unnoticed by your customers, you’re in for a surprise.
The good news is that there are straightforward moves business leaders can make to avoid this dynamic, with their own direct reports and with their whole organizations:
1.Make a genuine effort to write evaluations from scratch.
Take the time to reflect on each employee’s performance and thoughtfully compose constructive comments for every review. Even if the employee doesn’t agree with all you say, he will appreciate and respect you for writing your own reviews instead of merely parroting his self-assessment. If you lead a large organization, doing this for your own direct reports will send an unmistakable signal about how you expect your managers to prepare reviews for their staffs.
2. Keep a diary.
One of the reasons managers look for shortcuts to writing reviews is because they struggle to think of something to write. With multiple direct reports and six to 12 months of activity to keep track of for each, it’s no wonder that even the most seasoned leaders resist the exercise. To make it easier, keep a running diary for all your direct reports, a cumulative accounting of specific behaviors and accomplishments that illustrate performance strengths and weaknesses. Then when it comes time to write the reviews from scratch, you’ll already have a robust set of observations and commentary to pull from.
3. Carefully manage spans of control.
Even managers with the most detailed diaries and strongest passion for employee development will look for shortcuts if there simply isn’t time to craft a detailed review. This can happen when they’re given a ridiculously large number of employees to supervise. You can’t expect someone who has a small army of direct reports to author a thorough evaluation on each and every one of them twice a year. Companies like to use bloated spans of control to help cut expenses–but they fail to fully comprehend the effect on both leaders and staff.
4. Inspect what you expect.
What gets measured gets managed, but rarely are good measures put in place to track employee development. Sure, the human resources department may request a copy of all performance reviews, just to make sure they’re actually done. That doesn’t gauge the actual quality of the reviews. If the exercise is truly important to an organization, then executives should periodically evaluate the evaluations. Simply by looking them over you can see if the process is failing or being evaded and then take action to correct it.
No manager in her right mind would ever knowingly delegate a performance review–and no executive would ever tolerate such behavior. But it effectively happens all the time when managers commandeer their employees’ self-assessments because they’re unable or unwilling to craft comprehensive evaluations themselves.
The stakes are high. If your employees think you and your company aren’t making a genuine effort to evaluate and improve their performance, their morale and their engagement in the company’s mission will suffer. That will inevitably hurt them and, ultimately, the customers they serve.
When it comes to composing one’s own performance review, that’s a task that shouldn’t be in any employee’s job description.
Jon Picoult has held senior executive roles in service, technology, sales and marketing.
He is the founder of Watermark Consulting, which advises businesses on their customer and employee experiences.