Performance Reviews and Career Advancement

Performance Reviews and Career Advancement

This is a guest post by Financial Uproar, a mid 20s finance blogger who writes about investments and general money topics. If you like what you see here, please consider subscribing to his RSS feed or following him on Twitter.

Let me begin this post with a story about two consecutive yearly performance reviews, one given to me by a supervisor who liked me, and the other given to me by a supervisor who felt I was after his job.

The first performance review was great. I met or exceeded expectations in all eight categories. In the comments section at the bottom of the review, my boss stated what a pleasure I was to work with, complimenting my work ethic and disposition. To this day, I have yet to get a performance review as glowing as that one. I used the review as my main ammunition when I asked for a raise a short time later, getting every penny I asked for.

Fast forward to the following year. I had a different boss, but I was in the same position. Out of eight categories, I only met expectations in three, meaning I needed improvement in five. It became apparent very early on in the review that my manager was nitpicking, finding fairly specific things I had done wrong recently and basing my whole yearly performance on them.

Outraged, I set up a meeting with his boss. To paraphrase, I was told the organization still held me in a very positive light – my immediate boss just didn’t like me, but my job wasn’t in jeopardy. He implied that if I just stuck around long enough, my supervisor would either get promoted or move on and I’d get his job. I left within six months, largely because dissatisfaction with my supervisor made me feel like I was in a dead-end job.

Bosses have biases

I cringe every time a performance review is referred to as “objective.” The fact is, bosses have subordinates that they like, tolerate, or despise. If a boss likes the worker, the performance review is likely to be better than the employee deserves. It’s the exact opposite with an employee the boss doesn’t like. So rather than an objective review of the employee’s performance, we get a report filled with the reviewer’s biases, which is almost never accurate.

Even if you get several people contributing to the review, the biases will still be there. Supervisors talk amongst themselves, and human nature dictates that we value the opinions of our peers. If nearly everyone in an organization dislikes someone for personal reasons, that will inevitably change the opinion of the one person who likes them.

Both parties are looking for different things

As an employee, the purpose of the performance evaluation is simple. You want a good review, partially to feel good about yourself and your performance, but mostly so you can leverage it into a pay raise.

The supervisor has often been given pressure by management to not be too positive on reviews. Management knows if they have a bunch of staff that get great reviews then they’ll have a bunch of staff pressuring them for nice pay raises. Obviously management doesn’t want this, so reviews just about always follow a “employee A did this well BUT…” format.

It’s thus common for managers to nitpick on some little wrongdoing during review time, just so they can find something negative to put in the review. How is that in anybody’s best interest?

They really don’t care if you improve

In every workplace I’ve been part of, the review never offers any concrete ways to improve an employee’s performance. If the review identifies a weakness in a certain area, the reviewer should also outline a step-by-step process to improve the employee’s performance. At the end of the day, performance reviews are presented, discussed, and then filed away until next year, when the reviewer cracks them out to see what they said last year.

If management was serious about employees really improving themselves, they’d revisit reviews on a regular basis throughout the year, working with the employee to improve their deficiencies. A review could be a great opportunity to show an employee that the employer is serious about their personal growth in the organization. This opportunity is just about always squandered by management.

The boss has all the power

Every organization likes to tout teamwork. We’re all a team, they say. We all work together. This may sometimes be the case, but it definitely isn’t the case at review time. Rather, the boss has all the power. The employee can object to the review until they’re blue in the face, but they’re not going to change it.

In fact, objecting to the review just gives the reviewer further ammunition next year, they can add “doesn’t take criticism well” to their list of beefs. It’s either the supervisor’s way or the highway, which is a contradiction of the whole teamwork and working together mantras.

Can they go away please?

I’m not sure of the ideal solution for giving feedback to employees, but it’s obvious (at least to me) that the traditional performance review isn’t it.

If I ran an organization, I’d give employees a handful of goals to work on at the beginning of the year, working with them throughout the year to accomplish those goals. At the end of the year, I’d go over the goals with the employee. If there was success, then a raise is in order. The greater the success rate, the greater raise I’d give. And if someone didn’t accomplish much, then perhaps they need to be transferred to a different department or even let go.

That’s just one solution. Certain organizations are starting to come up with some innovative ones of their own. What’s your take? As an employee (or boss) what would you like to see in a performance review? How can the process be improved?

15 Responses to “Performance Reviews and Career Advancement”

  1. Anonymous

    Dude may want to realize that playing by whatever rules there are, and they are usually known in advance, is advantageous in many ways. Ranting on how pointless they are, and that’s how this post felt to me, is what is really pointless.

  2. Anonymous

    Performance reviews are generally given when mandated by company policy. In my experience, their primary purpose is to serve as documentation of a regular, objective review process to justify personnel action (e.g. raises, termination). They also serve as a baseline requirement for supervisors to provide feedback to their employees.

    The reviews are certainly not infallible in either of these roles; poorly done evaluations are of little use to either the employee as feedback or to the company as legal defense. Most companies seem to believe, however, that they meet those needs well enough to justify the expense of generating them.

  3. Anonymous

    Of course, I agree that employees do want a positive eval for both the monetary leverage it provides and also the feeling of satisfaction that comes with praise. However, I am surprised that you assume that those end results are all that an employees desires from his/her review.

    I always wanted and expected my supervisor to provide constructive criticism at my eval. I didn’t want it to affect my review score (obviously) but I would hope that every good employee would admit that they can always improve on something and every good employee would be open to suggestions from the boss.

    I enjoy writing and giving evals and get a lot of satisfaction from the development of employees, but I do agree that most evals are not beneficial mainly because the either reviewer doesn’t take the time or have the courage to conduct a quality evaluation or because company prevents true reward for a job performed well.

  4. Anonymous

    There’s nothing wrong with performance reviews, you need to have some sort of formal metric in place to give feedback.

    The problem with the whole process is that most managers are not leaders. They don’t really care about growing and developing their people, so they don’t really care about making this process meaningful for both the company and the individual.

    Leaders want their employees to succeed, even to the point that they might be grooming them to take over their job one day.

    Managers are the ones who are too busy to take 5-10 minutes a week to sit down one-on-one with their employees and check in on their progress.

    I worked for someone who I thought would be the busiest person in the world, but he always had time to check in with me and chat about the business. And when it came down to a formal review, it wasn’t much more than a conversation and some documentation for HR because we talked all the time and knew where each other stood.

    He wasn’t just that way with me (playing favorites), he found a way to connect with all of his employees. How did he find the time? Maybe he worked like a maniac late at night or early in the morning, who knows.

    All I know is that it’s possible to make this process work, it’s just that most bosses can’t be bothered to put in the time and effort to do it properly.

    Nobody is surprised by their review if you are constantly talking to them. Once a year doesn’t cut it though.

  5. Anonymous

    I have administered many reviews over the years. One year, my company’s focus shifted in a new direction and I had a few subordinates who had received glowing reviews in the past who were surprised when their review scores decreased significantly. They simply weren’t able to adapt with the changing needs of the business even though the new focus and expectations were perhaps even over-communicated for the entire review period.

  6. Anonymous

    First of all, thanks Nickel for letting me come guest post.

    I’ve had performance reviews that have told me I’m awesome. In fact, just about every performance review has been an overall positive one. My dissatisfaction for the whole process doesn’t just stem from one bad review. Just to clear that up. I thought they were just as pointless when I was getting good ones.

    I noticed all the people who administer performance reviews here are in favor of them. I’ve been on the administering end, and management put pressure on me to find things employees could improve on. If an employee is 5 minutes late once every 6 months, does that mean they need improvement when it comes to showing up on time? I’d argue no, but I’ve seen it come up in performance reviews. At what point does it become nitpicking?

    The kicker is, I stopped taking performance reviews seriously years ago. So have lots of other people I know, in all sorts of professions. If half the people who get a performance review couldn’t care less what it says, then maybe they aren’t that effective, no matter what management tells themselves.

    I guess this is why I have a job where I talk (on the phone) to my boss for about 5 minutes a week, and see her for half a day 4 times a year. 🙂

  7. Anonymous

    The unfortunate thing about performance reviews is that they are often based on soft skills. Because the type of job I have done involves people not liking me and me not caring because I’m not there to get along I’m there to accomplish a specific goal.

    I go to performance reviews armed with my accomplishments, how much money I’ve made the company and verifiable facts. Otherwise it ends up being a bitch session about how I hurt so and so’s feelings when I asked why we’d been paying Enbridge for a part on a furnace that had been removed 15 years ago. Yeah the refund was well over $10,000 but the head accountant never spoke to me after that.

    So depending on your style and your role it’s time to bring your own performance review with numbers. Of course that’s easy for me I’ve never failed to save more money than I earn within a month or so of being hired. But popularity contests are not my forte.

  8. Anonymous

    @Wil: I thought the same way, that FCN just had a bad experience in a review (thought it sounds like that was a while ago). But I’ve had volatile reviews, as well.

    Just like every employee thinks they deserve a favorable review, every manager thinks they manage well and provide fair, objective, and timely feedback. I’ve not reviewed any studies, but from conversations with respected people in other companies as well as my own, it seems the inconsistencies of feedback are significantly present.

  9. Anonymous

    I think performance reviews work best when there is objective and quantifiable data to base it on. If its based primarily on data and facts then its hard to argue. Unfortunately too much of our performance at work is subjective in nature.

    I certainly do think that bad managers can give bad reviews. It can be due to bias or just incompetence. I’ve seen it myself several times. I had a coworker nitpicked by a manger who criticized his choice of font in emails and used that as part of a negative performance review. Most managers do a decent job with evaluations and I’m sure its harder than it seems if you haven’t done it.

    Wayne is right about management trying to force bell curve distributions on reviews. That is usually where reviews really go wrong at my company. They try to push a bell curve on a small population and it just doesn’t fit at all. Take 50 people and I bet that roughly 5 of them did a bad job. Split them into 5 groups of 10. In each group of 10 its not a safe bet that 1 person did a bad job. Yet thats our system which always forces a bad review on the bottom 10%. If you’ve seen the show NewsRadio they did it there. One employee got the ‘big bonus’ and one employee got ‘the shaft’.

  10. Anonymous

    Wow! Sounds like the writer had a really bad experience that has tainted his view a bit. That’s unfortunate.

    I have received and administered a lot of performance reviews over the years. Yes, we all have biases, managers and employees. Performance reviews are not the time to express them. I can honestly say that I have never written a negative comment in a performance review that I had not given the employee (at least once) in a less formal setting. They were never surprised by something negative in a performance review because they had seen those very words before in an informal feedback session and had just failed to fix what was broken.

    If anything, I think that I have been brutally honest in the infomal feedback session and rather lenient in the formal ones, giving them the benefit of the doubt. I can’t believe that I am that different from the mainstream.

  11. Anonymous

    From all the jobs I’ve held, I know that bosses vary in a lot of ways. Performance expectations that have quantifiable objectives help in factory jobs (as Seth Godin refers to any job in which your goal is to do the same thing you did yesterday, but faster, cheaper, or more consistently), but as the expectation moves away from factory to “we don’t know what success looks like” it becomes increasingly hard to set proper expectations up front. Therefore, matching those quantitative objectives at the end of a year is very questionable.

    The larger the corporation is the bigger the need to compartmentalize employees. But managers, at least good managers, should be empowered (if not extrinsically, then certainly intrinsically) to call an audible as the details of the job differ from the norms. IMO, this type of goal customization should probably be happening for 80% of the unique job roles on average.

    Further, even the things we quantify are largely based upon subjectivity. That’s a good thing, however, as therein lies the wiggle room to negotiate for a better paying job within your current structure or a different one. All managers should want to help their employees succeed in their career, but if they accept the performance measures as they’re dictated without considering what actually needs to be the net output of their department, I think the employee ends up losing.

    Another problem with reviews that irritates me is that there is a common misunderstanding surround when a normal distribution (Bell curve) is useful. Usually, it’s mandated from the top down that performance reviews must conform to a Bell curve model (e.g., you must have x% of meets, y% of exceeds/partially meets, z% of far exceeds/does not meet or some variation of that). The thinking is that will highlight the few outstanding people with some kind of proven model (the Bell curve).

    The issue that I take with this concept of employee performance is that it ignores two critical pieces of statistics:
    1.) The Bell curve is an naturally-occurring observed pattern, not an ideal distribution (if it doesn’t already look normal, rescaling the data to look normal is just modifying the recorded data and is not really valid.)
    2.) The normal distribution will be observed when the population is general but not when the population is specialized. That is, we’d more likely see a normal distribution if we pulled in 150 people off of the street and asked them to perform one of your job’s tasks without any specialty training. Some people would be at the low end, others at the high end, and most in the middle.

    But, when you go out and hire 150 people, train them to do that task, and pay them money based upon that performance, the chart of the quantifiable performance of those people will likely look more like a skewed slope than a bell shape. That’s how it should be and that’s how it often is. Skewing will increase with specialization, experience, and training. Taking the people who are all over on the optimal side of the scale and saying “we normalized this, so now you look like you performed just OK” is a huge demotivator. But it gives managers a chart to point to during the review process and helps them make those tough decisions to not assign pay increases to just everyone.

    Even worse than the above is that the normal distribution is often forced upon many people doing completely unique jobs as if they are all doing the same job. That is, if we can quantify your objectives similarly (down to an integer from 1-5, for instance) then we can say that your manager has to allocate those ratings according to the Bell curve regardless of whether you and the other direct reports are doing precisely the same tasks. This happens a lot more often than you might think, and if the normal distribution is misapplied to specially skilled employees (every employee) than it’s _grossly_ misapplied to employees who do unique tasks (i.e. are really separate populations).

    My best take on solutions is to take the pressure off of managers to make Sophie’s choices once a year with tight deadlines and let them reward good employees and help them come up with ways to coach the employees who are looking for it.

    Some ways I’ve seen to be successful is for the manager to schedule regular one on one time with his direct reports (we do these every 2 weeks). This makes you busy, but it lets good managers actually manage and mentor the employees at a high level, while continually establishing what expectations are. If you meet twice a month with your boss, the results of a mid-year or year-end review is no surprise. In fact, they’re expected. I already know what my best achievements are and my failings are, and I’ve set on to improving them well before the end of the year.

    Another thing that good managers have done and bad ones have not is had the guts to buck the system as it came down from on high. “No, I can’t afford to have partially meets people in my organization. I either coach them in the job to be where we need them or I help those people move on to a role better fit for them.” If you hire good people, why are you punishing them based on a scale that doesn’t make sense? If you have bad people, why are they working for you? If you have good people and the numbers don’t reflect that, why are you using those numbers?

    Now that I’ve written up how I feel, I should paste this into a blog post of my own. 🙂

  12. Anonymous

    I have been an employer for 25 years and haven’t been employed since I was in school, so I too have a different take.

    I agree that bosses are people and have their own biases and problems. Over time if they are truly bad managers they will be moved aside.

    Everyone thinks they are doing a great job and are worth more than they are getting paid. I wouldn’t want anyone to work for me that didn’t.

    But it is difficult to do good performance reviews and satisfy both parties needs.
    I think a mixture of goal setting and reviews may be helpful-but there is no perfect system.

    But there are difficult co-workers in most organizations, and learning to deal with them is part of the process.

    Again I admit my situation does not allow me to see it with your eyes and this discussion will make me think more about it.

  13. Nickel

    Just to add a different perspective…

    “The employee can object to the review until they’re blue in the face, but they’re not going to change it.”

    Having sat on the other side of the table (as the boss) it’s important to consider the possibility that the boss is actually right, even if the employee disagrees. It’s rare for a person to actually think that they’re doing a bad job, even if they are.

    Also, depending on the type of position we’re talking about, it’s not necessarily the responsibility of the boss to micro-manage the employee by creating a detailed list of goals and then continually updating them.

    Remember, bosses have jobs, too… And their responsibilities typically go well beyond supervising those beneath them. If the boss has to spend a disproportionate of their time micro-managing their underlings, then nobody benefits.

    In fact, if an employee needs such a high level of oversight, that may be a sign that they’re out of their depth and shouldn’t be working in their current capacity.

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