Employee performance reviews done right

Hiring is the most important activity for any organization. That subject has been covered many times in many ways, so I won’t. Performance evaluation is in the top five, especially because it is linked to compensation. Yes, here’s my blog post about assigning numbers to people.

The back story for this post is that I recently spent all day in performance reviews for our organization. While describing the nature of the process and the details of who said what during today’s session would be great for page views, I’ll steer clear. I want to write about performance reviews because people are almost universally freaked out by them. It’s healthy to do regular, formal, qualitative evaluations of performance…when the evaluations are done the right way.

What are reviews like? Not every reader has been through a formal performance review, at least not in an industry setting. I don’t claim to have had a representative experience either as an employee or manager; I only know what I know. If you want to know more about "how things work" in other places, Google (or Bing) away. I can tell you that my own experiences have been pretty consistent:

  1. Performance is reviewed formally once or twice a year.
  2. Employees fill out a form where they talk about what they’ve done.
  3. Managers rate their employees’ performance and discuss with their peers.
  4. The ratings are sent up the management chain, where a series of calibrations take place to make sure everyone’s grading according to the same curve.
  5. The final ratings come back down the management chain. 
  6. The review is used to determine compensation: pay raises, bonuses, stock, promotions.
  7. Managers and employees have a discussion about the results of the review.

And the circle of life begins anew. Is all of this necessary? Technology people – geeks – really hate this stuff. At the lunch table you will be told that performance reviews are the tool of "pointy hairs" used to suppress and control the free spirited hacker who knows what is right but is not allowed to do it. I am sure there are a thousand smug Dilbert cartoons on the subject. (I despise Dilbert.) Reviews are sometimes used to control, suppress and annoy, but this is a symptom of organizational (and sometimes personal) issues. There are legitimate reasons for reviews. It may sound crass, but:

  • money is a huge motivator,
  • there are limited resources, and
  • there needs to be a process whereby the cash is fairly distributed.

A formal review system at least affords the opportunity to make the process somewhat transparent. If you buy that premise, and you’re in a relatively big organization, then most of the steps above kind of make sense. If you’re in a four person startup, maybe not.

For most of us privileged enough to be in a field like ours, there’s more to it than just money. Different factors motivate us and provide meaning to our work. Since many organizations are publically owned and therefore laser focused on profit, there is often a tension between employees – people – desiring to find greater meaning at work while meeting the needs of their organization. In many cases the things that provide meaning have nothing to do with money. A manager’s job should be to try and thread the needle and do right by both the employee and the organization. Those subscriptions to The Baffler may have snorted chocolate milk out of their noses at this point because this view may sound naive or even exploitive. I kind of get the skepticism, but all I can say is that if I felt I were in a place where I thought doing both weren’t possible, I’d leave. If the people that comprise an organization really want to be about something, then there is no better way to make a statement than through performance reviews. The statement might be "seemingly thankless work like maintaining a build system is valued", or "time spent mentoring new employees matters", or "showboating is lame and counterproductive", or simply "you’re doing an awesome job and we want you to stay." If management is a tightrope act balancing individual development and organizational goals, then performance reviews should be seen as the pole. Stabilizing weight hangs down on either side; a helpful burden.

So what is required to do it right? Above all else, everyone who participates in the process needs to be respectful of everyone else and truthful in their dealings. Most of the horror stories that people have about reviews boil down to a failure in one of these two areas. My own personal horror stories certainly were. (My horror stories: plural, redacted from this post, and unrelated to my current employer.) Face it: any system that involves people will fail without respect and truth. The next most important thing is shared understanding of organizational values. Sometimes the review process itself can help a team understand and articulate its own values more clearly by virtue of needing to introspect. A common trap is assessing the value of heroism: the coder who threw down a few 80 hour weeks to design and implement a brand new system to meet a deadline. New organizations risk overvaluing heroes; stagnant organizations risk undervaluing them. Organizational values make it possible to evaluate contributions. Obviously in order to carry out the evaluation you need to have a clear understanding of what people are doing and the associated value for the organization. Sometimes people spend a lot of time doing an outstanding job on tasks that are not particularly important. Who gets the blame for that depends on the situation, and yeah, realistically sometimes part of the review process is assigning blame – or "responsibility" if you want to be more PC about it.

The review process and its results should not take anyone by surprise. The #1 unwelcome surprise is when a manager tells a direct report that they’re getting a bad review when the employee isn’t expecting it. That sucks for everyone, and the blame lies entirely with the manager. It’s incumbent upon the manager to treat their employees with respect and stay up-to-date with how things are going. A manager may be tempted to blame "the system" in such cases: "I thought you’ve done a fine job, but you know how it is with the curve and all…I did what I could for you but I just couldn’t make the case well enough for you." It’s a reality that differences of opinion exist because no two pairs of heads or hearts are the same, but that’s no excuse for weaseling out of being straight with your team. Hearts and minds should be joined long before the day of judgment arrives. We owe it to each other as a team. The last important ingredient is that peer feedback at multiple levels is crucial. When collecting information for a review, the most important resource are an employee’s coworkers. Asking them directly what they think their peer is doing well, or needs to be improved, is a smart thing to do. As evaluations are reviewed by upper management, repeating this process is important. We all know that some of us are easy graders and others are tougher, so the goal is to be fair by accounting for these differences. Peer feedback needs to be shared at the end of the process (withholding names unless permission has been received) so that employees understand that the evaluation is based on the team’s input.

It’s easy, right? Be respectful, be truthful, understand your values, know what people are up to, and communicate. No, it’s not easy. It takes practice, but remember that reviews done right have still other benefits. They can inform the hiring process. If you know how to evaluate the employees that you have, you know how to look for (and get) the employees that you want. Reviews really can be a positive learning experience for everyone. The downside is that if important ingredients are missing, or applied in the wrong proportion, reviews can be a nightmarish burden. Don’t be one of those teams, and don’t shrink from the challenge!


Author: natebrix

Follow me on twitter at @natebrix.

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