Three Ways to Make Performance Appraisals Less Horrible

Dave had about as good of a year as any first-year reporter at could ever have. I could spend paragraph after paragraph detailing all the ways he exceeded expectations, how he took the job description and obliterated it with awesomeness and work that went far beyond the words on those pages.

Well, in fact, I did spend paragraph after paragraph doing exactly that — in his annual performance review. I turned it in citing specific examples along with a recommendation for the highest rating possible and the maximum salary increase.

The response? “This is unacceptable.”

To say I was surprised when that came back from my supervisor, who reviewed all of my appraisals, is more than an understatement, and it got worse the more she talked.

Dave couldn’t receive the highest rating possible because:

  1. He was a first-year reporter.
  2. Everyone has things they can work on.
  3. The highest rating possible was reserved for people who, and I quote, “walk on water.”
  4. I was giving Dave the highest rating possible only because he worked for me.

To which I said:

  1. My understanding of the review process as explained to me by the fine folks in HR was that people were rated against a set of standards outlined in the job description and a goal-setting meeting held at the beginning of each year or shortly after they started a new job, I had never heard it mentioned that higher ratings were reserved for veteran employees and that such a system seemed like a really bad way to attract and retain new talent.
  2. Of course everyone has things they can work on. “Which Dave and I will talk about as goals for him as a second-year reporter when I give him his first-year performance appraisal.” But for the things Dave was told he would be evaluated on for his first year, he exceeded expectations more than anyone I’d ever seen. In fact, a few months later, he would be named the “Best New Reporter” in our circulation category by the state’s newspaper association.
  3. If the highest rating was attainable only by the Lord and Savior of the Christian faith, why exactly did the highest rating exist as one of only three options? Under this framework, unless Dave needed to be on a performance improvement plan, he belonged with everyone else who “meets expectation” because he wasn’t born of a virgin. (Obviously I was more respectful than this in pointing out the absurdity of a three-choice rating system where one choice existed only in theory.)
  4. Yes, I wanted to give Dave the highest rating possible because he worked for me. I was not a part of performance appraisals for anyone who didn’t work for me because, evidently, the only person fit to be involved with evaluating someone’s work was the person who directly supervised them. But if the suggestion was that I was artificially inflating someone’s rating to somehow make myself look better, I had two other direct reports to whom I gave “meets expectations” ratings … and, as far as Dave goes, I would let his work speak for itself. I provided her the same clips Dave submitted that would win him the “Best New Reporter” honor.

Logical, right?

“Yeah, you need to change his rating. And find some not-positive things to put in there.”

Now, I understand hierarchy. I respect the fact that, unless I’m willing to quit or lose my job, “the boss” has the final say on any issue.

I also understand this is a horrendous way to lead.

Three Ways to Make Performance Appraisals Not Suck

I have never been a part of an organization where performance appraisals were anything but dysfunctional. The above example is hopefully an extreme, because I shudder at the thought that there could be many worse experiences. Yet even my best experiences are unacceptable if an organization wants to be truly focused on its employees’ professional development while rewarding its best performers and managing up or out those who don’t seem able or willing to cut it.

So what does a good performance appraisal system look like? Or maybe the more appropriate question is: Does such a system exist?

Most companies don’t seem to have a problem on the front end. Effective goal-setting with items that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound seem to be common. It’s the follow-through that’s deplorable.

If your company isn’t doing the following, it’s doing it wrong.

# 1: Input From Those Outside the Chain of Command

Paternalism in the workplace is demeaning. To suggest that a competent employee needs a parental figure to motivate him, care for him, nurture him and then tell him how he did without input from anyone else is so one-dimensionally simplistic as to be ridiculous. And it’s getting even more absurd in the new working world where employees are increasingly toiling remotely with less in-person oversight from their supervisors.

This merely underscores the fact that much of an employee’s contributions to the workplace happen among people in the organization other than her supervisor — if only because those “others” are far for prevalent than the one.

My own current situation is a perfect example. My supervisor works remotely and is in charge of the marketing departments for multiple hospitals across the Midwest, from Minnesota to south Texas. I work inside one of those hospitals most days, remotely on the others, and have minimal daily contact with her because I have earned her trust and confidence. Meanwhile, I work daily in the same orbit as three other people who have no supervisory responsibility over me and over whom I have zero authority. My work enables each of those three to do their jobs better, and their success is at least a partial reflection of the effectiveness of my marketing and communication work.

In an ideal system, these three should have major input on my performance review, right? They know what I do everyday. They know my attitude in the workplace. They know my effectiveness as an employee in achieving hospital goals. Yes, my supervisor sees the results. But they see the entire process. To have my supervisor do my performance appraisal without any input from these three attempts to color a vivid sunset with only one crayon.

And it’s not only those three who have more direct contact with me and my work than my supervisor. I coordinate with a variety of talented physicians, nurses, patients and families, among many others, to create my stories and marketing materials. If I make a video about clubfoot, for example, it is because I was able to successfully coordinate with a very busy physician to do the interview. What was I like to work with? If I do a story on a patient that includes interviews with the physical therapist, how did they find my questioning skills? What did they think of the final product?

To think that any employee’s salary adjustment and future opportunities should be based on the opinion and observations of one person and one person only is, if you really think about it, wrong. And I say this knowing that my supervisor values and respects my work.

#2: Cold, Hard Facts

Feedback from others coupled with that of the supervisor should amount to maybe 20 percent of the weight in an annual performance appraisal. The heaviest consideration should be given to objective performance measures. After all, if we’re judging the effectiveness of a marketing campaign, it isn’t just or even primarily about how I was to work with and what non-marketing people think about the final product. It’s about the data.

What my supervisor or my colleagues think about the effectiveness of the campaign should never mean as much as the actual effectiveness of the campaign based on pre-determined goals and measurements. We’re talking objective data. My colleagues or supervisor might think the promotional flyer looks really pretty, but if it doesn’t move the needle toward an agreed-upon goal, it wasn’t effective. Period.

Far too often I have seen and heard of performance appraisals riddled with petty interpersonal garbage. This person didn’t answer the phone the “right” way one time (which, if the appraisal time is in December, of course occurred in late November). She always has a “sour” look on her face. He doesn’t get along with one of his colleagues (who happens to be extremely outspoken and have the ear of the supervisor).

This isn’t to suggest that the soft skills don’t matter. They do. But they are extremely subjective based on a supervisor’s mood at the moment and the influence of those she has chosen to listen to at the expense of those who might not be in her inner circle or who simply are quieter. The bottom line? If an employee’s goals are based on data, this kind of pettiness doesn’t happen.

Performance appraisals shouldn’t reflect emotions. I have hired, trained and helped promote great employees who don’t fit in with the dominant culture. In fact, I hired them specifically because they countered that dominant culture when it was too beholden to drama, ax-grinding and back-stabbing.

Bonus tip: A sign that your performance appraisal system is too emotions-based is if an employee who excelled one year is in the same job doing the same type and quality of work but has a new supervisor who recommends a much-lower rating. If you’re in charge of the system, look for these situations and monitor the reviews closely.

#3: Move Them Out of December

You can make the argument that, done correctly, performance appraisals are important to the future of an organization. It’s the one time a year where you can best reward and chart the course for your top dawgs while parting with or moving toward parting with those who just don’t and won’t “get it.”

So why do so many companies jam all of them into the craziest time of year, when everyone’s focus is more on holidays and vacations and visits from family along with end-of-the-year drives to meet goals and complete necessary reports?

At the peak, I had 35 performance appraisals to complete. For me, this involved meeting with not only the person being appraised but, prior to that, talking with her colleagues to gain better insight, as well as crafting the actual appraisal based on notes from observations and meetings I’d had with her throughout the course of the year. That is a time-consuming process, though, admittedly, it is made easier by making performance management a year-round thing.

How much better would it be to move appraisals to a time when the company’s business cycle is the slowest? Yes, I get fiscal cycles and the like. But I also get the importance of performance management to the success of the company. And if you’re not going to treat it as important and simply hammer it in, why are you even doing it?

Parting Words and Dave’s Resolution

A few things that should go without saying but I’m going to say because they apparently can’t go without saying:

  • A bell-curve review process is moronic. This is the theory that a certain small percentage of your workforce is great (and maybe even walks on water), a huge percentage is good, and a small percentage is bad and its members are in need of performance improvement plans. As a manager, I resented the implication that I would reach the end of the year with employees one step from the door. I prided myself on hiring people who would never fall into that category, and if they did, they wouldn’t stay there long. There was no way I was going to force someone who definitely was meeting expectations into the bottom tier.
  • Not all employees have to have something “bad” in their review.
  • Employees should be given adequate time to see what is in a draft review, respond — and have it matter. If your review is based on the paternalistic observations of your manager and no one else, or if it is even partially based on 360 feedback, you have the right to correct errors, misperceptions or outright fabrications and have that feedback considered in the final rating and salary adjustments. Too often, a review is handed down with all important decisions already made. Sure, you might have a place to add your feedback, but that feedback frequently can change nothing. Thus, the appraisal becomes stone tablets brought down from the mountaintop and not an honest discussion of an employee’s performance.

With Dave, I stood my ground. I said I would not deliver an inaccurate performance appraisal that devalued a star employee’s performance based on a flawed interpretation of the established system. My supervisor’s supervisor settled the disagreement in my favor.

And then my performance appraisal said I had demonstrated an unwillingness to be coached and managed. When I asked for examples, I was given one: Dave’s performance appraisal.

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