What Should Be the Focus of Performance Reviews?

Is the heart of a performance review the critique or the forward-looking drive for growth and development? That’s a question “Trade Performance Ratings for Guidance; Link Goals to Strategy” by Roy Maurer, published by the Society for Human Resource Management, brings to mind.

No one likes to be rated like a question on a multiple-choice test, but some believe that, beyond the discomfort, ratings may not be effective anyway.

Ratings don’t work, Maurer quotes William Sparks, vice president, Research and Development at ACDI/VOCA, as saying. “They’re too skewed to biases of the evaluating manager,” Sparks believes. “Saying you didn’t meet expectations doesn’t help to change your performance to actually get there. What you need is something to show where you are now and where you want to go, and the guidance in between.”

I searched online for information about performance reviews because I’m experiencing some angst in that department. Namely, I haven’t had one in the last four years of my five years of employment. My company has a policy of requiring a performance review for each employee annually, but apparently it isn’t enforced. Like many, I loathe the ratings and critique part of reviews, but I’m sorely in need of the growth and development part of it.

I’m asked to fill out a performance review self-assessment each year, and submit it to Human Resources, but I never have a sit-down with my manager to review my own assessment and go over goals and new plans for the future. Feeling that my review is being carelessly dispensed with, I use the long-form portion of it, where you can write anything you like, to express my frustrations. I began this year’s by asking what (if any) development plan there is for me at the company, and whether there is any interest in retaining me.

At least a month went by, and no one said anything to me. Then, a couple weeks ago, our department head sheepishly told me while getting his coffee in the kitchen that he had noted my self-assessment, and that I wasn’t being ignored. He went on to mumble something about waiting for additional financing for our department, and the fact that my manager had felt too “hamstrung” to give me a review for the last several years.

My manager has told our department head that he’s hamstrung because there is no money available for a raise. A salary increase is of great interest, but like the archaic ratings system, that’s only a small part of the picture. The much more important part is the development that can be offered to the employee. Obviously, the department head should have held my manager’s feet to the fire, and guided my manager to give the performance review annually, regardless of ability to give a raise, focusing instead on opportunities for development.

A challenge for Learning professionals is how to take the performance review and turn it into a tool for learning, rather than just having it serve as a Human Resources formality. How can Learning professionals do that?

What key pieces need to be present, not only in the form used for the performance appraisal, but in the manager-employee sit-down piece of it?

Companies are still under financial constraints, even as our economy recovers strongly from the financial crash of ’08. So it’s reassuring to note that there are many (if not most) development opportunities that don’t cost a penny. For example, one development opportunity I plan to mention to my department head is changing my exclusion from meetings. It’s gotten so bad that some of my co-workers tell me they ask themselves at many meetings, “Why isn’t Margery here?” I have to respond with the truth: “You know, that’s a great question.” It could be simple negligence, or it could be more strategic than that.

A sad possibility that keeps many performance appraisals from becoming tools for development is a desire to keep the employee in a development box, rather than helping them grow. Help them grow too much, the thought process of the manager seems to be, and they’ll grow into the manager’s job role or make the manager’s job obsolete. Or they’ll grow and prove themselves so much that the company will find it hard to justify letting them continue to do the menial tasks they do, and those tasks will be kicked back to the manager. In other words, there’s a self-interest in the way some managers approach performance appraisals. How can Learning professionals fix, or prevent, this from happening?

One idea is to tie the growth and development of employees to the manager’s own performance appraisal. The manager would be reviewed not just by how she has delivered on her goals, but on how much her employees have developed—as judged by the new skills and experiences they have proven to acquire over the last year—and the opportunities that are being presented to them for the coming year.

Making performance reviews mostly about ratings and salary increases plays into the hands of managers who want to manage from the shallow end rather than taking a deep dive into the long-term development of their employees.

As Learning professionals, how can you work with the Human Resources department to create performance reviews that become tools for learning?