Why performance reviews deserve a better rap

Performance evaluations sometimes get a bad rap by people who see them as a bureaucratic waste of time.

And yes, if you treat performance evaluations as a waste of time, an exercise you just have to get through so you can say it was done, that’s exactly what it’ll be. But when done right, by good managers, performance evaluations can be meaningful and useful, both to the employee and the manager evaluating her.

I want to say up-front that performance evaluations should never substitute for providing regular, ongoing feedback throughout the year. In fact, if anything in an evaluation is a surprise to the employee, it’s a sign that the manager hasn’t been doing her job.

So then why bother doing a formal review at all? For these reasons:

1. To make sure that the manager and employee are both on the same page about how the employee is doing overall. Over and over again, I see employees and managers who are out of alignment on this — managers who think they’ve given clear messages (good or bad), but employees who haven’t absorbed them. By formally measuring how the person’s results have matched up against expectations, evaluations send the some of the clearest messages about how things are going.

2. To give you both a chance to step back and talk about how the employee can grow and improve. For struggling employees, this is usually obvious and the evaluation should just be the latest installment in a conversation you’ve already been having. But for good employees, it’s an opportunity to formally talk about how they can go from good to great, or from great to … well, it’s a good time to figure out what they should be striving for next.

3. To talk in-depth about how the lessons and experiences of the past year should influence plans for the coming year. By systematically reviewing what went well and not-so-well in the past year, you can make far stronger plans for the coming one.

Could you do all these things without a formal evaluation? Sure. But in practice, it doesn’t always happen.

{ 9 comments… read them below }

  1. Ann*

    I think performance reviews are good but I'd love to the slap the person who came up with the self evaluation. Means little when I write it up and you dish it back out to me. Isn't that what they are paid for?

  2. Anonymous*

    I gather that the bad rap for annual performance evals is that they're so inferior to frequent feedback. I prefer frequent feedback myself, but where that's in short supply, I'm grateful for annual reviews. They sure beat no feedback at all.

  3. Anonymous*

    Self performance assessments are very useful, especially when your manager easily forgets what you've accomplished.

  4. Cassie*

    Honestly, I'd rather do a self-assessment. Our dept (as with the other depts in our company) requires employees to get evaluated each year. There's a two page form (1st page has categories like "written communication", "reliability", etc) and the 2nd page is for employee and supervisor comments.

    Each supervisor handles these differently. I know some go into detail with their staff. My bosses, however, don't – they give me the highest marks on each section (except one year when one boss gave me the 2nd highest ranking for "customer focus" because he didn't know what the category meant!)

    This year, one boss asked the other if there was anything that I needed to improve upon… the latter boss replied "I can't think of anything significant…" which made me wonder if he meant there was something insignificant or if he just meant no. (English not being his first language).

    In my experience, the deal with being an assistant to people in academia is that they just want you to get stuff done. They don't particularly care how you do it (they'll let you know when you do something wrong!) and they aren't going to sit down and discuss things with you. It's not so much that they don't have the time – they just aren't interested in that aspect of being a supervisor…

  5. Anonymous*

    That comment on the linked article? About the folder of poison arrows? Yeah. That's how the group I support treats me. I hear nothing all year,and then at review time, BOOM–I'm a screw-up!

    Not cool!

    I prefer things be addressed right as they are happening very much over walking into a s*** bomb, unaware!

    I don't understand why people can't just communicate. It's hurtful.

  6. Joe*

    I agree that performance reviews are very valuable. Back before I managed people, I always looked forward to them as a mechanism for personal improvement. Now that I’m managing people, I try to be as thoughtful and constructive in my reviews as I always hoped my manager would be for me. I do believe in continuous feedback, and subscribe the idea that when an employee is reading their review, there should be no surprises, because it should all (good and bad) be things they’ve heard from me before. But even so, a formal review is a chance to step back and look at the bigger picture.

    That said, what I really hate about performance reviews is not that they have no value, but that the value provided is sometimes disproportionately low compared to the effort involved. At my current company, our performance review process is insane. The main review is an 18 page form, covering core values, competencies, goals, long and short term plans, and a host of other things. There is a lot of overlap, but we have to fill out the whole form. Each employee fills out this whole form as a self assessment, a shorter (3-4 page) form as a peer review for several peers, and a 6 page review of their manager. Managers then take all of this information, and their own perspective, and fill out the entire 18 page form again with the integrated review. This form is used as a basis for a 1-on-1 discussion with each employee, then filed away and never looked at again. So the amount of time that goes into it is insane, and the value it delivers is limited.

    This is the most absurd review process I’ve had to deal with, but in my experience, performance reviews always sap a lot of time, and usually don’t deliver enough value to be worth the time invested.

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