More Frequent Performance Reviews? Please, You Better Shoot Me Now

review performance

I’ve never been much of a fan for the performance review process

I’m with people like Dr. John Sullivan, who says that it is the one HR process that “everyone universally hates — employees hate it … managers hate doing it … and HR hates processing (them).” He feels that the problem is that reviews focus almost entirely on employee traits and not really on performance.

Or, there’s UCLA business professor Sam Culbert, who says about reviews that, “First, they’re dishonest and fraudulent. And second, they’re just plain bad management.”

Younger workers want instant feedback

And there’s a lesser expert who declared, “I am not a fan of the annual review process, mainly because of the focus on the ‘process.’ The discussion with the employee isn’t the problem, but rather, what you must go through to get to that stage — the inflexible forms, the manual process, and the lack of a good follow-up system that makes the evaluation truly meaningful.”

Ok, so that last one was me a few years back, when I was toiling somewhere else, but my sentiment now is the same as my sentiment was back then. That’s why this story in The Wall Street Journal hit me with the proverbial WTF when I read it:

The status-update era is changing the annual performance review.

With many younger workers used to instant feedback — from text messages to Facebook and Twitter updates — annual reviews seem too few and far between. So companies are adopting quarterly, weekly or even daily feedback sessions.

Not surprisingly, Facebook Inc. exemplifies the trend. The social network’s 2,000 employees are encouraged to solicit and give small nuggets of feedback regularly, after meetings, presentations and projects. “You don’t have to schedule time with someone. It’s a 45-second conversation — ‘How did that go? What could be done better?” says Lori Goler, the Palo Alto, Calif., social-networking company’s vice president of human resources. More formal reviews happen twice a year.”

OK, I get the 45-second debriefing session, but how does that qualify as performance feedback rather than the regular daily office back and forth you have with all employees?

Are more regular reviews really the answer?

The Journal story goes on to discuss the problems inherent in the typical annual or semi-annual performance review — that “the traditional once-a-year review is so flooded with information, appraising past performance, setting future goals, discussing pay, that workers have trouble absorbing it all — and then makes a case for more regular reviews.

When Grasshopper LLC, was founded in 2003, the company conducted annual reviews. “We very quickly realized that it was impossible and foolish to sum up an entire year of someone’s work in one meeting,” says David Hauser, Grasshopper’s co-founder and chief technology officer. The Needham, Mass., company, which provides virtual phone systems, then moved to quarterly reviews, but found that employees would spend anywhere from four to eight hours at the end of each quarter preparing and writing their reviews, which seemed like a waste of time.

Now, every two weeks, managers and employees of the 50-person company meet one-on-one for 30 to 40 minutes to discuss issues big (“I want new job responsibilities”) or small (“Can I move my desk?”). They also discuss performance during the previous two weeks and set goals for the next period…

The downside is that the biweekly meetings are time-intensive for managers, but Mr. Hauser says that being in regular communication with reports is part of a manager’s job.”

Well, he’s right that “being in regular communication” with employee’s is part of a manager’s job, but formal bi-weekly performance review meetings? When does anyone doing that get any other work done?

I’m all for more feedback, and I welcome any and all attempts to make the broken and decaying performance review process better. But is the answer really to have more time in formal meetings (meetings that take a good deal of time to prepare for) yakking back and forth?

Automated performance systems are the REAL answer

I still think that automated performance management systems are the ultimate answer because they allow managers to give feedback to their workers every day but in small doses that can be easily tracked and memorialized by the automated system.

Yes, I still think those systems are the solution, but far too many companies are unwilling to invest in them, especially given the uncertainties we’rer all struggling with in this economy.

Even The Journal story makes note of this, saying, “New software programs are also making it easier for workers and their managers to share instant praise and criticism,” but they only give automating performance management a couple of paragraphs when talking about improving performance management.

It’s worth more than that, I think, and automation is far preferable than bi-weekly performance reviews that take a bad process and just make it more frequent and time consuming.

In fact, I don’t buy the notion that more frequent formal reviews will do anything other than make everyone in the workforce even crazier about performance management than they are already. And if that’s the way we’re going, please, shoot be now because it will drive me nuts if you don’t.

Employee feedback is something that we all need to do more of, but we need to automate it, not simply take old systems and crank them along more often.

I long for a better solution than we have right now, but what The Wall Street Journal is touting isn’t it.

  • Rob Wheatley

    Agreed, performance reviews are “Process Heavy” in most organisations and that is usually the reason they are such a dreaded task. You’re right, no one likes them.

    They are usually too infrequent to be in anyway effective (too much to think about in one go, objectives go stale, work you did gets forgotten about…).  Infrequency is usually driven by the fact they’re such a dreaded, tedious task (see the theme?). 

    Personally I think we’ve lost sight of why we do performance reviews in. We do them to help the company perform. Setting and measuring people’s performance against objectives that are aligned with the company’s goals can only be a good thing. We also do them to help employees grow within the company and give them a sense of engagement. Infrequent, process heavy reviews simply don’t cut it. 

    I’m really rather passionate about this, which is why I started Cogendo http://www.cogendo.com

    We’ve created an online performance management tool called PerformanceHub which revolutionises the whole process. It gets rid of all the paper/Word/Excel nonsense and puts it all online in real time. This helps with the obvious things like automating much of the process and providing lots of new business intelligence, but PerformanceHub also uniquely connects employee’s objectives in an unbroken cascade all the way up to company goals, so you can align the organisation. This increases agility because as things change, everyone who needs to know gets told straight away. It also increases transparency as your employees can navigate this cascade to see how their objectives fit with everyone else’s – transparency being particularly important to the “Facebook” generation.

    Reviews, comments, ratings etc can all be done as a steady trickle feed whenever you want – as you say, “small doses of feedback” against specific actions. We’re expanding the system to include tasks, so no bit of work goes forgotten – employees now get the recognition they deserve, even for the little things. 

    Rob Wheatley

  • John Michel

    John, I especially agree with the last section of your post. There’s no doubt in my mind that automated employee management software is far more effective at assessing employees than some of the traditional performance reviews: http://www.peopleanswers.com.

  • Rcrump

    I wonder how long it will take before the “intelligent” ones will realise that their HR $$s can be more effectively used elsewhere. Perfomance Review is so sadly an absolute waste of time, effort and resources right across organizations. Who will be the leader? Who will have the courage to call time on this out dated process? Do a cost/benefit and the decision is ever so easy.
    Ron

  • http://rallyyourgoals.com/ r/ally

    I think that light weight, ongoing performance feedback is much more beneficial than the once a year thing. Its better to find out you are heading in the right or wrong direction after the first few miles than driving for an entire year in the wrong direction.

  • steventhunt

    John, another great article. A few thoughts from someone else who is obsessed with finding better ways to do performance management.

    First, the quotes you provide from Drs. Sullivan and Culbert must be based on a somewhat limited review of performance management processes. I suspect these quotes are based more on their personal experiences than a rigorous, systematic empirical review of performance management across hundreds of companies.

    I’ve seen a lot of performance management processes that employees view as unfair or irrelevant. I’ve also seen many that employees appreciate. Most probably fall somewhere in between. There is also peer-reviewed empirical research showing that well-defined, consistent and transparent evaluation of employee performance is something high performing empoyees value and that drives better organizational performance (for a nice overview of this research, I recommend the book Performance Management by Professor Herman Aguinis) . So as I say over and over again, employee dislike lousy performance management processes but they actually want and value effective performance management processes.

    Second, I agree that what we don’t need is a move to doing traditional, high formalized annual reviews on a weekly or monthly basis. I’ve seen companies try versions of this and it doesn’t work well.

    What does seem to work for many companies is placing greater emphasis on ongoing clarification and updating of employee goals and tracking progress against these goals. This can be augmented with less frequent but ongoing feedback and documentation on behavioral strengths and developmental needs. This information about goal accomplishments and performance related behaviors gathered throughout the year is then fed into the decision making process when it is time to determine employee contributions to the company in order to decide where to invest scarce resources like pay, promotions and development,

    Technology has made it possible to create these sorts of processes. But technology must be used correctly for these processes to work.

    Steve