Best of HR Roundtable: Should Performance Reviews Live — Or Die?

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Nov 13, 2015
This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.

Editor’s Note: TLNT has been publishing Steve Browne’s recaps of the HR Roundtable in Cincinnati for more than five years. For two weeks, we’re bringing back some you might have missed.

Not ones to shy aware from hot topics in HR, the November HR Roundtable in Cincinnati gathered to discuss “Performance Reviews: Live or Die?”

Everyone came in with their own jaded viewpoint toward their personal experiences regarding performance reviews, so Steve gave them three questions to bring the focus in a bit before hitting the main, decisive question.

  1. What makes performance reviews bad?
  2. What makes performance reviews good?
  3. Should performance reviews live or die?

The energy in the room jumped when the small groups leapt into this topic. They were forewarned not to think about this subject in the “traditional” or “typical” way. This was a chance to really dig in to performance reviews. Their answers reflect that this was more a more critical look at things. Take a look :

What makes performance reviews bad?

  • People! — This may seem generic, but the issue that people generally aren’t trained on how to effectively write/give performance reviews, is a fact. It’s also true that employees receiving reviews don’t always know what the parameters are in regards to reviews. The whole topic is all over the board and isn’t even consistent within an organization’s own walls.
  • Annual basis — The idea that you get one hour per year to talk about a person’s performance, career aspirations, development, etc. is pathetic! If the “most important asset” only warrants an hour per year in a work year full of 2,080 hours, you can’t make their review good.
  • Static vs. Fluid — Most reviews are static snapshots because the system that is used (and developed by HR) is not meant to be fluid. If it was more of an ongoing look at a person’s continuing performance, they may be more effective. The question is cultural in nature though because people have to be willing to spend more time with their people intentionally.
  • They focus on what’s wrong — Reviews in general are an annual meeting to discuss what an employee isn’t doing well so goals can be developed to “fix” what’s wrong. This is not a developmental approach, but most organizations feel they’re moving people ahead if they can fix folks. (We’ll cover a different solution later).
  • Linked to pay — When performance reviews are linked to directly to compensation, one of two things happen: (1) The employee only focuses on the end result and misses all of the information prior to the increase being communicated; or, (2) Supervisors spend hours writing pages of reviews and force ranking people to end up giving them a percentage of the percentage they’re allowed to give within their budget.
  • They contain surprises — There are examples where a supervisor never addressed a real, or perceived, issue with their direct report and they use the performance review as the discipline hammer. It’s not cool to do this and that isn’t the intention of a performance review. If the only hope/outcome is to document and discipline folks, then scrap your review system and start addressing your employees when issues arise in a timely fashion!
  • Fear — Gee, this is encouraging! It was noted that many reviews either are fear based, or there is fear of what will happen during the session. Again, how effective is HR if people view your review system this way?
  • We think numbers really define our people –– Is a “4” really a “4,” or is it a “2” disguised as a “4” (using a five-point scale)? Numbers and rankings give reviews the necessary “metric” everyone keeps striving for, but too often they tend to be the most inconsistent aspect of reviews. They are usually open to way too much interpretation.
  • People aren’t honest — This is true for both supervisors and employees. There is the reality that reviews only go “so far” in conversations and that results in missed opportunities to have genuinely open dialogue that could move both parties forward.

What makes performance reviews good?

  • Feedback on specific behaviors — Reviews do provide a forum where people can reflect and discuss specific items that could be either strengths or areas to improve. Having time set aside to have open discussions can lead to improved performance.
  • When they truly “review” performance — If the time together is a look over the past and current performance of someone, they can be very effective. This is also taking more of a fluid approach by looking over a period of time. In order to do this, people should be taking notes between review sessions so that things are always front of mind and easy to recall during your meeting.
  • If both the supervisor and employee are engaged/involved in the process — This makes great sense. When reviews aren’t seen as only top/down, they have a better chance for success. Employees will see that their performance is important to their supervisor and it should lead to more open interactions and feedback that is two-way.
  • Need organizational commitment and ownership — The differentiating factor in this response is “ownership!” Most companies will state they’re committed to a review system, but few consistently own it. When there is participation across all departments, the system has a better chance for success.
  • If they’re consistent — Ahh, the magic bullet! If all HR systems were consistent, we’d see a marked change with how effective they truly can be. It is a great position though because consistency allows for anticipation, engagement and participation on a regular basis
  • If they’re focused on development — Not to jump to the next section too soon, but reviews focused on truly developing staff are much different than the report card system that most use to justify, pigeon hole, and compensate folks. Having a system that looks at how to improve people and, in turn, move the company forward are the best type of performance reviews out there.

Should performance reviews live or die?

  • Hate to say this, but . . . it depends! — When you take the overall pulse from the group, they should die (in their current state). When you get together to “meet with the principal” as the overarching theme or setting of the review, they should die. The key factor in making this happen though is HR. This isn’t someone else’s responsibility. HR needs to be the leader in stepping in to handle this. It really is a great opportunity for us to reconvene and make performance reviews effective.

Others may look at this and determine to stop doing them all together. One thing needs to occur if that is the choice. You need to have effective feedback and development systems. They don’t have to be specifically tied to reviews, but these two components absolutely need to be integral within an organization.

This Roundtable could have gone on for several more hours, but we needed to break. Make sure to check back here in December when we are discussing, “How do you define, and have, effective communication?”

This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.