A Persuasive Argument for Getting Rid of Employee Performance Reviews

UCLA business professor Samuel Culbert is a man after my own heart.

Culbert, to put it mildly, is NOT a fan of employee performance reviews. They should be eliminated, he tells NPR , and he doesn’t hold back telling you why. “First, they’re dishonest and fraudulent. And second, they’re just plain bad management,” he says

Now, you can view what Professor Culbert says with a degree of skepticism when you consider that his comments come as he’s touting a new book (written with Larry Rout) titled Get Rid of the Performance Review! Yes, he wants you to buy into his perspective on performance reviews because he wants you to buy his book – but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

When workers undergo an annual review, he says, “They’re going to talk about all their successes — it becomes total baloney.” And management participates in the charade, as well he adds, saying: “The boss already has heard [from] his boss what they want to pay the guy, or the woman. So they come up with a review that’s all backwards.”

It’s all about the boss’s opinion

“Once you set up the metrics, that’s the only focus for the employee,” Culbert tells NPR. “The problem with performance reviews is that the metric that counts most for the employee is the boss’s opinion. So the employee starts doing what he or she thinks is going to score in the boss’s mind, and not even talk about what he or she believes is necessary for the company to get the results that really matter.”

Culbert isn’t alone in feeling this way about employee reviews. Here’s what another, slightly less esteemed expert said about the performance review process back in October 2009:

“I am not a fan of the annual review process, mainly because of the focus on the ‘process.’ The discussion with the employee isn’t the problem, but rather, what you must go through to get to that stage — the inflexible forms, the manual process, and the lack of a good follow-up system that makes the evaluation truly meaningful.”

Yes, that’s what I said at the time when I was still Editor over at Workforce.com, and I still think it’s true today. But my rant back then about performance reviews came because another prominent name – Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz – took an equally big whack at the process.

“If I had my way I wouldn’t do annual reviews,” Bartz told The New York Times, “[especially] if I felt that everybody would be more honest about positive and negative feedback along the way. I think the annual review process is so antiquated. I almost would rather ask each employee to tell us if they’ve had a meaningful conversation with their manager this quarter. Yes or no. And if they say no, they ought to have one. I don’t even need to know what it is. But if you viewed it as meaningful, then that’s all that counts.”

Only 1 in 5 companies invest in automated systems

I might feel differently, I said at that time, if I had access to some slick software that automates the process. But I have never, ever worked at a company that spent the money to buy such a system – although I have had many an HR vice president promise me that it was coming sometime soon. Well, I eventually moved on to other jobs, and not a single employer I formerly worked for has ever followed through and bought an automated performance management system.

That’s a shame because there are some very good systems out there, and I know that because I saw some of them last month at SHRM San Diego. I even asked the good folks at Halogen Software (they make a pretty easy-to-use system) how many organizations had an automated performance management system, and they estimated that only about 20 percent of American businesses — yes, only one in five — had invested in one.

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That’s a big problem in my book, because until an organization invests in an automated performance review system so that managers and HR professionals spend more time talking and coaching workers on a regular basis rather than struggling with antiquated paper forms given out once-a-year, well, it will all be about process and NOT about improving performance.

Don’t get me wrong. Yes, there are a lot of good reasons to do annual performance reviews (as I’ve said before), but only if you use an automated system to handle the process so the focus is on performance and improvement rather than how to make your comments fit into an inflexible and hard-to-use paper form.

I don’t think I have ever really had an annual sit-down review that yielded all that much. And, this isn’t just me. Everyone I know, I meet, and that I talk to has a story about the managers they knew who glossed over the real issues when it comes time to do a formal review, and the problem isn’t getting any better.

A persuasive point of view

So yes, Professor Culbert is peddling a book he would like you to buy, but he also seems to have a strong and persuasive point of view. I’m not sure if he would draw the distinction between manual and automated reviews that I do, but no matter. We can quibble about the 20 percent of the business universe that uses automated performance management systems another day.

In the meantime, I’m going to go pick up a copy of Get Rid of the Performance Review because I firmly believe in the premise and probably most of what the book says. And Professor Culbert thinks that if you read his book that you will probably feel that way, too.

As he writes confidently in the forward to the book, “So go ahead and believe in performance reviews for now. By the end of the book, you’ll be calling for their end.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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