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Time to junk the performance review

performance review

The words “performance review” tend to evoke a visceral groan from supervisors and employees alike.

Or, in the words of Amy Leschke-Khale, writing in Fast Company, “Most of today’s performance management approaches, no matter what we call them, are often complex, emotionally burdensome, and time consuming, resulting in the most dreaded task we have to do at work.
. . .

“The markers that we try to measure are usually made up in an attempt to have some sort of quantitative measure of work that’s uncountable. As for competencies, well, your own unique best work is just that, unique.”

Her description of the process would be funny, except it isn’t: “Employees struggle to write a self-review of their own work to hopefully entice their manager to give them a better rating. Managers spend hours writing some sort of narrative about work they don’t really remember so they can justify the rating they know they already want to give. . . .

“Feedback may be the gift that keeps on giving but it’s a white elephant gift. Performance review conversations are intended to be helpful but often end up in a game of the team member defending their performance and the team leader trying to come up with encouraging words to help the team member feel good about a ‘satisfactory’ rating.”

Possibly her most important recommendation is “creating a separate annual compensation conversation from the ongoing . . . check-ins around performance.”

Combining salary reviews with performance reviews almost always leave employees with the feeling that their raise (or lack of one) depends on performance. That is only partly true. Unless someone is paid on straight commission, other factors—inflation, the company’s financial state and future outlook—are at least as important. Separate conversations can prevent mistaken connections here.

Leschke-Khale has her own suggestions for replacing the dreadful rite of the performance review, but we can see it broadly in two categories: for employees who are performing well or better, and for employees that are doing badly.

For the first category, the best procedure might include occasional check-ins between supervisor and employee to cover general issues—and most importantly (although indirectly), to gauge each other’s feelings toward each other. Since 93 percent of communication is nonverbal, this is easy enough to convey and usually impossible to conceal.

Leschke-Khale’s recommendation: narrow the review down to two questions: “Does the employee deliver quality work in an appropriate timeframe, and is the employee reasonable to work with? No goals to grade or competency models to rate. Just two simple questions which can be asked of managers frequently to provide the organization with a beautiful view into the talent landscape.”

Leschke-Khale believes that such conversations should take place weekly, although that idea is likely to provoke groans nearly as loud as the performance review itself.

Then there are employees who are performing poorly. They may need something like the traditional performance review: “You need to have X results in Y amount of time, and I will ask to report on those results when that time is up.”

Whether this works is a moot question, but when an employee has gotten to this stage, his or her life expectation in the company is likely to be brief in any case. The performance review here is mostly to provide the company with backup material supporting reasons for dismissal, in case that is challenged.

There is a great deal of talk about how the pandemic has changed the workplace. Let’s hope that in at least a few instances, we can ditch meaningless rituals that are better suited to a “Dilbert” strip than to the real world.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.