Please get rid of IT staff performance reviews

The grand revelation about performance never worked and never will

A job interview gone wrong.
Credit: Thinkstock

News about Accenture ditching its performance review process next year broke this week. The consulting firm now joins other corporate giants like Microsoft and Deloitte in changing how they evaluate employees. The plan, according to reports, is to do more regular evaluations after each project and keep track of what employees accomplish on a regular basis.  

Back in my corporate days leading a technical group within an IT department, the concept of a performance review was still evolving. The CIO at the time created a five-point grading scale, and directors were expected to make sure their managers used the system for all annual reviews. There was a methodology involved that took several days at a seminar to explain. We spent a few hours (I’m not kidding about this) just talking about what a “five” rank means.

Oddly, since I knew all about the grading system and how it worked, it came as a surprise when I was graded using the same system. My position had changed over the years, and so I had a new boss. In fact, I reported to someone who didn’t have any idea what my team of designers, writers and testers even did during the day. He was pretty clueless. I rarely even met with him, but when I did, it was usually to discuss general leadership principles and to approve my travel plans.

When I sat down for my performance review that year, my boss kept fidgeting. I knew something was wrong. The previous few years, my reviews were all glowing — I ranked a 4 or 5 in almost every category. I remember getting raises of 10% to 20% consistently at a time when managers were only supposed to give out a raise of about 3% to 4%. My boss decided to rank me much lower, at about a 2 or 3 in most areas. I was bold enough to question some of the rankings and argued that he wasn’t really aware of what I was doing. I mentioned a few good examples. Eventually, I met with the vice president of the department, and he adjusted most of my rankings.

What was the real problem? For starters, the ranking system just wasn’t working because managers were doing evaluations from an ivory tower. My boss didn’t really know that much about the weekly or monthly progress with my team, that we had actually finished some amazing projects and completed some long-term goals. Another issue had more to do with how we react to criticism. There’s a lot of stress involved. It’s much better to give feedback in small, digestible sizes because we tend to accept that feedback and make changes. We view it as healthy. One big reveal of our performance tends to create a lot of negativity and we react poorly. We don't change.

You have to ask yourself: What is the real goal of a performance review system for IT workers? I remember thinking at the time that the people who did really well within the performance review system just knew how to brag and speak up for themselves. They were showy about their accomplishments. The managers around me didn’t seem to be trained in recognizing whether the IT employees were actually completing their objectives. For some reason, we worked really hard tracking their time but didn’t really track their performance.

If I went back in time, I’d poke holes in what that CIO was trying to do with the review system. It was mostly created as a way to make performance reviews more data-driven. It led to some fancy charts he could show the executive team. But did it really lead to better performance? Not really. Today, I’d lead a team by giving better, more constructive feedback on a regular basis. I’d praise more often as a way to encourage progress on a project. I’d skip annual performance reviews. They don’t really work, because the grand unveiling doesn’t lead to positive changes.

A healthy organization runs on the wheels of steady employee feedback, not yearly reviews. Regular feedback leads to real change. Employees need to know whether they are meeting expectations today, or this week, or this month. If you only let them know how they are doing once per year, there is no way to adjust behavior.

What do you think? Are you ready to ditch performance reviews? Post in comments.

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