Weekly Wrap: Surprise! We STILL Really Hate Performance Reviews

Photo by istockphoto
Photo by istockphoto

This just in from The Washington Post: Performance reviews are a pain, and both those who get them and those who give them hate the entire process.

Yes, it’s stunning to just now hear that, isn’t it?

Now, I generally like The Post’s On Leadership column, and I have pointed to it frequently when it has good stuff, as it often does. And although a recent column — titled The Corporate Kabuki of Performance Reviews — does shed a little new light on how broken the process is, reading The Post‘s column is like hearing a friend exclaim over a restaurant they just found that was a really big deal when it opened 10 years ago.

Yes, they’re a little late to the party on this one.

Here’s what The Post discovered, and pardon me if it seems familiar:

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We don’t need neuroscience to tell us why the annual performance review song-and-dance is so universally reviled. We have our own reasons: the endless paperwork, the evaluation criteria so utterly unrelated to our jobs, and the simplistic and quota-driven ratings used to label the performance of otherwise complex, educated human beings.

And then there’s the buggy software and tedious online tools that make what should be a simple process-sitting down for a cup of coffee to talk about how things are going-downright exasperating. …

What makes this annual rite of corporate kabuki so baffling is that those of us getting and giving reviews aren’t the only ones who hate them. The corporate leaders who force them upon us apparently aren’t big fans, either. In surveys of managers and human resource professionals, leadership advisory firm CEB found that performance reviews, well, get pretty bad reviews themselves.”

One thing I did learn from The Post column was that we’ve had performance review systems for a very long time, and that’s part of the reason why we’re so locked into them, and, why they are so difficult to change.

An “imperial rater” was apparently used as far back as the Wei Dynasty in third-century China to make performance evaluations of people at the imperial court. The Navy used performance ratings during the Civil War, says Kevin Murphy, a consultant who has studied performance reviews. “These are large-scale, complex systems for making people unhappy,” he says. “They’re not a new problem.” By the time the 1980s rolled around and General Electric’s Jack Welch fueled the rank-and-yank craze, in which companies rank-ordered employees and culled the bottom 10 percent, it was hard to imagine a world without them.”

So, how do we “fix” the performance review system? Is there a way to give feedback on someone’s work that is actually helpful and has meaning without having to deal with the damn forms and hated process? There is, and The Post gives a brief glimpse at it:

Two years ago, Minneapolis-based Medtronic “completely ditched the old style of performance management,” in the blunt words of Caroline Stockdale, a former chief talent officer for the $16.2 billion medical technology company. Out went the ratings that assigned employees a number between one and five, the forced bell curves that mandated how many ”3s” and “4s” a manager could hand out, and the annual mountain of paperwork to review from the past. …

In its place, she instituted a quarterly “performance acceleration” process that focuses entirely on a handful of forward-looking goals, has no numbers or ratings, and includes a one-page summary sheet. So far, fears that the changes would lead to managers not making tough calls about terminating people have gone unfounded-“involuntary turnover,” as Stockdale calls it, has remained steady. In addition, managers’ increased freedom in the performance evaluations has led to double the average merit increases for the company’s truly exceptional performers.

When she describes the new system to her HR peers at other companies, she hears a lot of “I would love to do that, but…” responses. No one seems ready to follow suit. “This is one of the sacred cows. The typical performance review system doesn’t work because you’re demotivating half your population, poking them in the eye with a sharp stick.” And, apparently, dulling sections of their brains for a while, too.”

Of course, there’s a lot more than the latest on 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.

  • College degrees? They’re what high school diplomas used to be. I think we’ve all suspected this for a long time, but The New York Times brought it out into the open this week. Yes, you now need a four-year college degree to compete (or get hired for) for many jobs that you didn’t need one for before. “The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma: the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job. … Economists have referred to this phenomenon as “degree inflation,” and it has been steadily infiltrating America’s job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn’t used to require a diploma — positions like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters — are increasingly requiring one…”
  • Is your social media policy useless? Gretchen Gavitt digs into this on her recent HBR blog, and she notes that recent NLRB decisions that were intended to help clarify what employees can say about their job on social media has actually made things muddier. “The Board has issued a bunch of the decisions — and in a lot of cases the employer won,” Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard Law professor and faculty co-director of the school’s Labor and Worklife Program, reiterated to me. “It’s not the case that you can just go on social media and scream about whatever you want to.”
  • Why your husband or wife may lose their health care. It’s another one of those unexpected consequences flowing out of the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare). According to MarketWatch.com, “Companies have a new solution to rising health-insurance costs: Break up their employees’ marriages. By denying coverage to spouses, employers not only save the annual premiums, but also the new fees that went into effect as part of the Affordable Care Act. This year, companies have to pay $1 or $2 “per life” covered on their plans, a sum that jumps to $65 in 2014. And health law guidelines proposed recently mandate coverage of employees’ dependent children (up to age 26), but husbands and wives are optional. “The question about whether it’s obligatory to cover the family of the employee is being thought through more than ever before,” says Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health.”
  • How screwing up can be a smart career move. Everybody screws up, at least some of the time, and as Fast Company notes, doing so can actually be a savvy career move. In this article, Bill Clinton is the poster boy for screwing up and using it to help your career (insert your own Clinton-Lewinsky joke here). They even list some “Rules for a proper screw-up” that includes “Don’t apologize.” It;s something you need to read — and enjoy.

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.