Performance Evaluations? If People Are Cynical, You Have a Problem

From the HR blog at TLNT.
From the HR blog at TLNT.

A friend was telling me a story about the performance review process at his company that I had to share.

So, we are in the midst of our performance reviews and of course, everyone is cynical about them. One of our VP’s was actually open about it that 5’s (the top score) should never be given except in very, very extraordinary circumstances. And although not as clear, 1’s are never given as well. So the top score is essentially all 4’s and maybe one 5. Though that will be rounded down so that more people can get a moderate pay increase while the bottom is rounded up so they don’t lose anyone (we are still in a hiring freeze, even for replacements unless it is mission critical).

What’s wrong with this picture? Can we start with “everything”?

If people are cynical, you have a problem

Does any of this sound familiar? It sounds like a typical day in performance review land to me.

Executives or HR messing with scores after the fact, telling people to not use certain numbers when rating, and manipulating results to fit in with business conditions rather than making smart policy decisions. These are all things that broken organizations do to try to fit performance appraisals in without making consideration for what is the most important part about them: giving honest feedback and a data point in the life of employment.

Employees aren’t cynical about the idea of performance reviews — they are cynical about how they are executed and how they are viewed. They are implemented by managers who feel as if it is an anchor, and one who pleads to HR, “I know who is great, let me just give them raises.”

They are overseen by HR who explains, “We need this to be done so that I can meet my goals.” All for the benefit of executives who think, “Nobody should get 5’s because that means they’ll stop wanting to improve!” All of these are indicative of a bigger issue.

Solutions sell, but do they deliver?

For years, new processes, systems, and software have dominated the conversation about performance management improvement. Switching from an anniversary-based to calendar-based evaluation schedule has been suggested as a way to improve our process. Many great software systems out there could help do the job. I’ve seen them and I know in the right hands, they could be wonderful improvements.

But until we stop seeing performance management as a form to fill out or a software system to implement, none of these improvements matter. It has — and always will be — about communicating regularly with employees.

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Software systems don’t give pats on the back. Forms don’t give an interactive way to talk about real issues. Looking to these as a solution is going to find you frustrated at whoever suggested it, or, at the software vendor (unfairly I might add).

What it really takes to make performance systems work is a change in company culture and management. Oftentimes, the manager who knows who is good has internalized it and hasn’t given both the good employees and the not-so-good employees feedback about what it is they are doing. Or the HR person who just wants to get them in and done so they get their boss off their back. Or the executive who sees the budget, knows they can’t give many raises, and instead tries to spread the wealth to stop the bleeding.

What do we do?

Before we start selling the software solution of the day, or the latest and greatest performance evaluation process, we’ve got to think about how we communicate with our employees on a day-to-day basis. How do we use our words and our actions that happen the other 11 months a year during the evaluation process? Are employees surprised about results? Are they cynical because of changes enacted to reduce the amount of merit that goes into pay raises and promotions?

Thinking about the manager’s role more critically as the primary link in the performance management chain is essential. Being proactive in training them, assisting them, and getting feedback from their employees is essential in evaluating who needs the assistance of a software system, and who needs the assistance of better education.

It may be a simple concept but it is time consuming and costly. But is it worth it? If your company sounds familiar to the one I wrote about above, it is going to do a lot more for you than just a different form.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.