Recent headlines have proclaimed that Accenture, Dell, Microsoft and others have “eliminated” the performance review. Actually, these organizations are streamlining the performance management process; the only thing they are eliminating is the practice of ranking employees and then firing those with the lowest evaluations, commonly known as the “rank and yank.”
Though the performance review process is widely acknowledged to be flawed, few if any organizations are doing away with reviews. Employees need feedback, after all, and managers need agreement on professional goals.
The process is fraught. Reviews make many employees anxious, and overworked managers even more stressed. CEB estimates that training, filling out forms and other activities associated with the review process consume more than 200 hours annually for the average manager. In IT, a thorough performance review takes multiple hours to write and requires the manager to gather input from the employee’s peers in IT and customers in the rest of the organization. In addition to reviewing the prior year’s performance, a good review should also include discussion of next year’s goals and training/certification opportunities.
In short, you have ample reason to assess and streamline your own process. And because so much is being said within the industry these days about the need to do that, it’s possible to gather some good ideas. For example, working within your organization’s HR policies, you can do the following things:
- Establish appropriate and relevant metrics. Make sure that your staff’s reviews evaluate activities and accomplishments they are able to control; they should not be held accountable for outcomes that depend on others’ performance or corporate craziness. Professor and author W. Edwards Deming was not a fan of the individual annual performance review, claiming, “It is unfair, as it ascribes to the people in a group differences that may be caused totally by the system that they work in.” Select performance criteria carefully.
- Understand job specifics. New or nontechnical managers must take time to learn enough about employees’ job responsibilities and accomplishments to judge performance accurately. Technical staff can be prickly, frequently viewing anyone who does not understand the details of their discipline as just a suit. Showing genuine interest helps break down barriers and can transform employees’ perception of you from a suit to a coach. Most employees like to talk about their work. In some cases, the act of explaining activities and challenges can help an employee view an issue from a different perspective, thereby revealing a new solution.
- Provide regular feedback. Don’t wait for a formal meeting driven by corporate paperwork to tell staff how they are doing. Offer feedback as events occur. Take time to thank employees for a job well done or to suggest ways they could have handled a situation differently. When this is done well, the annual performance review becomes largely a summation of prior feedback, which prevents nasty surprises.
- Track feedback. Keep a log of the informal feedback you provide, even if HR does not have a tracking system. The log will help ensure that specific accomplishments or shortfalls aren’t inadvertently omitted from written reviews. Specifics help justify raises, bonuses and promotions for stellar employees while providing the justification for replacing underperformers. In addition, a reasonably complete log covering all direct staff can help limit lawsuits claiming wrongful termination and discrimination. Even when the organization prevails, these lawsuits waste a lot of time and money.
- Focus equally on remote staff. Most people find remote management difficult. When constructive criticism is delivered electronically, it is often perceived as overly harsh, despite the best of intentions. Local challenges and cultural nuances can significantly affect the way work is performed. Don’t assume that conditions in the field mirror those in headquarters. Visit remote locations periodically to understand local conditions and challenges. Get closer to staff so they will contact you more freely and have a better understanding of you both personally and professionally. These visits can also serve to dispel any misinterpretations of corporate goals, guidelines and staff.
- Recognize good work. HR professionals and psychologists have known for decades that recognition is a more powerful motivator than money (after food, shelter and other basic needs have been met.) Everyone appreciates being thanked for excellent work. Although a few people prefer private recognition, most people appreciate being recognized for a job well done in front of the rest of the organization.
- Enforce proper usage. The objective of the performance review is not merely to complete the form or to satisfy HR. Rather, the performance review is a staff development tool that facilitates a discussion between manager and employee around performance and future growth. Far too many managers require employees to write their own review. Many managers will then simply sign it unless it contains false or contentious claims. Any opportunities for discussion, increased understanding or goal setting are lost unless a dialogue occurs and changes are made jointly. Misaligned perceptions can cause resignations, even from the best performers. Make sure the managers who report to you create meaningful reviews and understand that their own review depends upon this. Employees who receive trivial performance reviews should file a complaint.
- Offer training. Make sure all managers get basic training on your company’s performance review process. Many first-level IT managers are outstanding technical staff who were promoted in order to bypass compensation limits. Most of these new managers need management training. (Would you want to work for someone who had only minimal understanding of what managers do — like Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss?) If your organization is large enough, it may already have a management development program. If not, Open College, the University of Oklahoma, Udemy, community colleges and others offer no-cost or low-cost introductory management courses. Make sure such programs include the performance review process, as well as employee assessment and motivation. Otherwise, develop your own in-house training.
Early in my career, I was fortunate to have a manager who said, “My job is to give away my job.” He explained that if he could help me acquire new skills, I could take over some of his responsibilities, preparing me for greater responsibility and freeing him to take on new assignments. He did not wait for an annual performance review to provide assessment and encouragement to his staff; he was a source of continuous feedback for everyone who worked for him.
Don’t let current industry news tempt you to decimate the performance review process. When done properly, it is still an excellent tool for aligning individual performance and goals with corporate business objectives. But don’t wait for next year’s performance reviews to let employees know what is expected or appreciated. And if you want to deliver a real surprise during an employee’s review, ask him how he thinks you’re doing! Just be prepared to accept his feedback graciously — and keep smiling!
Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.