The future of the performance review

Performance Reviews

There’s no doubt about it: plenty of people hate performance reviews. There are several reasons for this: the forms, the office politics, or maybe the thought that reviews are a waste of time and resources.

On the March 19 episode of The Diane Rehm Show on NPR, guest host Frank Sesno led a panel of three experts on performance reviews to talk about the process’ flaws, benefits and its adaptability to a changing workplace. This post contains the highlights of their conversation.

Why we do them

General Electric was the first company to implement what we now think of as performance appraisals in the 1950’s, said Dick Grote, president of Grote Consulting Corporation and author of six books on performance management. There’s got to be a reason they’ve stuck around and, according to Grote, this is because employees and their companies have an “ethical obligation of leadership.”

“Every person who works for an organization wants the answer to two questions. And the two questions are, first, ‘What do you expect of me?’ and second, ‘How am I doing at meeting your expectations?’” explained Grote. “And the conventional performance appraisal, with all the problems we’re familiar with, does the best job of answering those two questions.”

Why we hate them

Performance reviews often put an emphasis on past mistakes. While the review is meant to hold employees accountable for their fumbles, the unleashing of a year’s worth of bad days and missteps does nothing for morale or motivation.

“Most of the time, it’s backward looking and negative,” said Brian Kropp, managing director of the HR practice at CEB. “And one of the things about the backward looking and negative part of it is that you’re usually getting performance feedback about things that you did three months ago, six months ago, nine months ago, 12 months ago. And the applicability of that backward looking information to your performance today is actually pretty low.”

How they can be improved

At least a few positive things can be said of performance reviews, including their tendency to encourage accountability and measure meeting of expectations. But what if there was another way to do those things without the process we’ve come to use?

Computer software giant Adobe scrapped its performance review processes a couple years ago. They calculated they were spending 80,000 hours within their 12,000-person organization on the review process, and felt they weren’t getting a good return on investment. Now they have an ongoing dialogue and check-ins with their workers.

“What really we expect people to do is in the course of a manager’s working relationship with their employee, we’re expecting that at least on a regular cadence — when we say a regular cadence, we say we want to see it monthly,” explained Donna Morris, senior vice president of people and places at Adobe. “And it shouldn’t go as far as quarterly. You’re sitting down with your employee and it’s reciprocal. The employee is sharing their expectations. The manager is speaking about their expectations. They’re respectively sharing feedback.

We need some gauge of employee performance whether you’re banishing the old system of the review altogether or you’re adjusting to fit your people or your team.

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