Weekly Wrap: Is This the New Way to Give a Performance Review?

I have never, ever been a big fan of performance reviews.

Well, maybe that’s not entirely accurate. What I meant to say is that I pretty much hate the process of performance appraisals, at least as I have experienced them, because despite all the ones I have conducted over the years, I’m not sure any employee I reviewed was ever happy with the process.

There are a lot of reasons for that from the timings (annually, mostly), to the inflexible nature of the process. If I was ever able to work on one of those spiffy performance management systems that automate so much of the process, perhaps I would feel differently, but I always got stuck doing reviews the old school way.

Is this how to do a performance review?

Given all of that, I was surprised this week to read about how Paul English, the co-founder and chief technical officer of travel website Kayak, handles performance reviews. Here’s what he said in The New York Times’ Corner Office column:

Q. Once you launched your career, what were some leadership lessons you learned?

A. The most important thing I learned is something I’m still actually working on, which is how to be really blunt with feedback. It’s the most difficult thing for a manager to do. But I worked hard at it, because when managers were blunt with me, it hurt a little bit, but I’m very grateful to those few managers who helped me.

I developed this technique over the years. When I gave people their performance reviews, I would literally take a crinkled envelope, and I’d write five words on it. I would take them out to lunch, and I’d say to them, “Let’s say I left this company, and five years from now I was sitting in a bar and someone said, ‘Hey, what’s that guy like?’ What I would tell them is what I’m going to tell you. And there are two or three words that are positive, and there are two or three words that are really negative.” I would give examples and I would give them the piece of paper, so I had no written record of what we had talked about. One guy in particular e-mailed me 10 years later, and claimed that he still carries that piece of paper around. That really reinforced for me the idea that the best way you can help someone is to be on their side and to be honest with them.”

Some issues with how to handle it

I was shocked that Adam Bryant, The New York Times staffer who handles the Corner Office column, didn’t follow up on what the Kayak co-founder had to say about performance reviews, because there were a number of issues that jumped out at me. Such as:

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  • It’s important to be blunt with feedback in a performance review. My response: Yeah, that’s generally a good idea, but have you been equally blunt with that kind of feedback in your interactions before the review? 
  • That it’s OK to share that blunt feedback about an employee with someone else (over a drink in a bar, no less) when someone asks about them years later. My response: Are you kidding me? Hasn’t he heard the HR mantra about only sharing job title and dates of employment so you don’t open the organization up to the possibility of legal action?
  • You can reduce a performance review to five or six words written on the back of an envelope. My response: I’m all for brevity, but I would probably have been fired if I ever turned in an annual review like that. And, I doubt that person I was reviewing would have been very happy about it either.
  • Reviews should be equal parts positive and negative. My response: Reducing the performance review to a formula is never a good idea — and  it’s the biggest problem with most reviews.
  • There’s no need to keep a permanent record of the performance appraisal or the subsequent conversation about it. My response: So much for keeping a good paper trail you can refer to later. This is the kind of thing that gives HR Pros blood pressure problems.

Look, there are a lot of reasons why performance reviews go wrong. And, we need to spend more time figuring out how to make the review process a more useful tool to help give feedback and improve performance.

But Step 1 has got to be getting managers and executives to better understand that the formal process of performance feedback can’t be reduced to a conversation that is pinned on five or six words written on the back of a crinkled envelope. Reading about an executive who touts that as a smart business practice tells you all you need to know about how broken the performance appraisal process really is.

Losing your job for one social media mistake

Of course, there’s more than an executive talking about how NOT to handle performance reviews in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • A sick day policy to die for. This is the kind of stuff that drives people who work in the private sector crazy. The Los Angeles Times report that employees at the LA Department of Water and Power “benefit from a 32-year-old policy that allows them to take paid days off well beyond the agency’s 10-day-a-year cap on sick days. Last year, 10 percent of the department’s roughly 10,000 employees took at least 10 extra days off, the data show. More than 220 took an extra 20 working days off, or about a month, according to a Times examination of data obtained under the California Public Records Act.” The cost to taxpayers? “A total of $35.5 million since 2010,” the newspaper says.
  • Should you lose your job for one social media mistake? The MinnPost asked this question this week: “Twitter and other social media have given millions of people the opportunity to be stupid in public. But one piece of stupidity shouldn’t be a capital offense.” It’s a good question, and as the website points out, “A recent example occurred at Bring Me The News, a Twin Cities news and sponsored content provider. An unidentified staffer mistakenly tweeted a dark joke about an episode in which a tree fell and killed a woman in Eden Prairie. She had meant to tweet from her personal account, but sent it from Bring Me The News’ account. The organization apologized and the staffer resigned under pressure. But is one bad joke cause for losing one’s livelihood?”
  • Some data to consider in the flex-work debate. There’s been a lot written about Yahoo eliminating their work-at-home arrangement for employees, and the HBR blog recently wrote about some employee data that popped out of one study: Strongly positive comments from employees on the occasional days that they worked from home. Again and again, we saw people writing about how refreshing it was to be freed from office distractions and to have the opportunity to catch up on work. On our end-of-study survey, we asked directly how they felt about working from home. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Of particular interest to us, participants felt that they made more progress when they worked from home. The reasons they cited included increased focus, greater creativity, saved time that would otherwise have been spent commuting, and feeling relaxed and comfortable.”
  • Are you planning to go to HR Tech? I’ve said it before, but the annual HR Technology conference is one of the very best HR-related events of the year. As I wrote last year, “HR Technology has evolved over 15 years from a good, solid conference into one of the very best HR-related “must attend” events. It is one of two big conferences (along with the SHRM national conference in June) that you must attend if you REALLY want to take the pulse of what is happening in HR.” This year’s HR Tech conference is being held Oct. 7-9 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, and that means it should be a lot more affordable than it was last year in über-pricey Chicago. It’s also Bill Kutik’s swan song as conference co-chair, so I’m sure that will make it even more memorable. To get a discounted registration, use the Promo Code TLNT13 (all caps) when you register online www.HRTechConference.com for $500 off. This handy  video tells you a little bit more …

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.