A Wall Street Journal article by UCLA professor Samuel Culbert entitled Get Rid of the Performance Review! has generated lots of debate.  Here’s my review of Dr. Culbert’s review of reviews.

Dr. Culbert begins with the following rather provocative statement:

You can call me “dense,” you can call me “iconoclastic,” but I see nothing constructive about an annual pay and performance review.  It’s a mainstream practice that has baffled me for years.  To my way of thinking, a one-side-accountable, boss-administered review is little more than a dysfunctional pretense.  It’s a negative to corporate performance, an obstacle to straight-talk relationships, and a prime cause of low morale at work.  Even the mere knowledge that such an event will take place damages daily communication and teamwork.

He then cites several reasons for why he believes performance reviews deserve a “failing grade”:

  1. Two Mind-sets.  The participants are at “cross purposes” — the boss wants to discuss performance improvements, while the employee wants to discuss compensation and development.
  2. Performance, Schmerformance.  The review has a “tenuous at best” connection with actual performance.  In reality, it’s merely a story that the boss concocts to explain the employee’s pre-determined pay.
  3. Objectivity Doesn’t Exist.  The review pretends to be objective and fact-based when it fact it’s almost entirely subjective and political.
  4. One Size Doesn’t Fit All.  The review process ignores the uniqueness of each person’s role and skills and tries to shove everyone into the same flawed rating scale.
  5. Arrested Development.  The review process chills development discussion because the employee fears that any admission of imperfection could be used against him/her.
  6. Teamwork Suffers.  Rather than build a bond between boss and employee, it’s merely a one-sided process that puts all the power in the boss’s hands.

Dr. Culbert’s solution?  Performance previews, which he describes as “reciprocally accountable discussions about how boss and employee are going to work together even more effectively than they did in the past.”  He says that previews “weld fates together” because “[t]he boss’s skin is now in the game.”

As for how to deal with problem employees, Dr. Culbert says, “Take away the performance review, and people will find more direct ways of accomplishing that task.”

The Verdict

Dr. Culbert raises many valid points.  Reviews that are untruthful, subjective, political, superficial, inaccurate, unfair and/or damaging to development and teamwork obviously aren’t a good thing.

In fact, when I was in private practice I often told clients that having no performance reviews was better than having bad performance reviews.  Almost nothing is worse than trying to explain to a judge or jury why the company fired someone for reasons diametrically opposed to the company’s own official documentation.

Anyone who’s been in HR or employment law for more than fifteen minutes has probably been through the following rather painful scenario . . .

Manager:  I want to fire Bob.  He’s the worst employee ever.

HR/Legal:  Hmm.  Let’s look at his employee file.

Manage:  Do we have to?

HR/Legal:  Yes.  (Pulls out the latest performance evaluation).  Hmm.  Just last week, you gave Bob a 10+++++ on a 1-10 scale.  And all of your written comments are very positive, with lots of exclamation points and smiley faces all over the place.

Manager:  I knew you were going to say that.  Why do you always have to make things so hard?

Sound familiar?

Rather than throwing out the review process altogether, I suggest that the items highlighted above by Dr. Culbert be used as a checklist to audit your current system.  Performance reviews don’t have to be the way Dr. Culbert described them.  Done right, reviews absolutely can be honest, accurate, fair, concrete, objective and thoughtful — all of which should improve development and teamwork.  Good employees crave honest feedback and respect a leader who tells them the truth and even asks for feedback on his or her own performance.

In the event that problems arise, I agree with Dr. Culber that they should be addressed directly and immediately.  Too many managers wait ’til performance review time to dredge up a year’s worth of perceived problems.

Feedback and development should be a natural, ongoing conversation — not a painful once-a-year “check off the box” exercise.  Train managers how to do it right, using the above principles as a guide.  Your employees (and lawyers) will thank you.

Want More?

Click here for a video featuring Dr. Culbert’s “Tips for Dealing with Problem Employees.”  Or check out the article for a list of additional resources.