Performance Evaluations and Poop


by Garold Markle


HR’s irresistible attraction to performance ratings and grades reminds me of my dog, Baxter.  No matter how many times I tell him to quit eating deer droppings, he simply can’t resist.  I scold him and shoo him away from the latest pile of poop, but if I turn my back for just a minute, Baxter’s chowing down on another.  It’s what he does.

Employees have complained to HR leaders for decades that the performance evaluation process is demeaning.  Managers and supervisors bemoan its burdensome ineffectiveness.  Lawyers tell us that the forms work against us in court.  We promise repeatedly that we’re finally done with the process, but in the end, we simply can’t avoid returning to the grading ritual.  As with Baxter, the predilection for poop appears to be in our DNA.  It’s what we do.

Over the last few years, several very prominent companies have loudly and proudly proclaimed that they have begun a process to abandon performance evaluations.  Soon thereafter, however, they quietly reverse course.  They take what Julie Ramirez in HR Executive calls a “hybrid approach” that includes a new appeal for ongoing conversations while retaining the annual rating and/or grading session.  They simply can’t resist.  It’s what they do.

In 2012, Kurt Eichenwald in Vanity Fair surmised that Microsoft had “lost a decade” in their competition with Google and Apple, along with 261 billion dollars in market cap, not in small part due to their “stacked ranking” process.  Less than a year later, their CEO, Steve Balmer, announced his early retirement and Microsoft informed Nick Wingfield of the New York Times that they were halting their infamous, culture-destroying evaluation system in favor of something “new and more flexible.”  Quite notably, there has been roaring silence since that bold proclamation.  Little has been revealed over the last two-plus years about what the new system looks like.  Just don’t think for a minute that they’ve sworn off grading entirely.

In similar fashion, last year, after decades of bad press, GE announced that it is officially cutting the cord on its notorious “rank and yank” process.  So did two of the world’s most prominent consulting firms — Deloitte and Accenture.  They openly discussed plans to bail on their uber-evaluation systems in an effort to assuage disillusioned millennials who clearly dislike being labeled and pitted against one another (as if Baby Boomers or Gen Xers feel any differently).

Here’s the problem.  Most of the companies declaring revolution have no idea what to do in place of the status quo.  Literally every new idea is in early Beta mode – they are conducting live experiments on real people in real organizations.  More importantly, because of clear and obvious design flaws, most of these new trial programs are destined to fail.

The most popular new approach is presented as both simple and organic — train and encourage managers to give real-time feedback to direct reports.  Stop saving corrective counsel for annual awkward showdowns and provide it continuously throughout the year with an emphasis on “performance achievement.”

So, here’s a question.  Isn’t talking with direct reports about how they’re doing on an ongoing basis already implied?  It’s called being a boss.  Training managers and employees in the fundamentals of routine tactical communication is wonderful, but it hardly takes the place of an annual strategic summary discussion.

At a more pragmatic level, there is a big debate on what to do about capturing evidence of ongoing organic conversations.  Some advocate no records.  The Managing Director of Human Capital Performance at PwC, a large audit, tax and consulting company, reports to HR Executive that writing down feedback can become a “ding on a record” and work against behavioral change.  Hence, they discourage official documentation of the recommended ongoing conversations.

Sounds a bit loosely structured, right?  How will we know if or when conversations have taken place?  In the end, what does all this routine talking really mean?  Is it any wonder why so many are opting to retain a foothold in the old grading ritual?

On the opposite end of the documentation continuum is an approach being piloted by GE.  Not surprisingly, they are putting portable technology into play.  GE has developed a phone app (PD@GE) that will seemingly track everything and involve everybody.  If you didn’t like it when your boss evaluated you once a year, the theory seems to go, you’ll love it when everyone you’ve ever met can take a shot at you at any time, all year long, using their app.  This solution is akin to “Twitterizing” the performance feedback process, showering employees and managers at GE with an endless flow of picayune messages to flood their inbox every day.  Want to bet how long that will last?

Ms. Ramirez foreshadows the end result of these ongoing dialogue models.  They will lead inevitably to what she calls “the endless conversation.”   Am I the only one who finds that concept a little scary?

Sure, daily coaching interactions are important in promoting behavioral change, but is an increase here sufficient to eliminate the need for something more summary?

Bottom line, most companies leading the charge for change don’t appear to really think so.  Over and over, when we finally get a glimpse of their high profile “revolutionary” replacement systems, it becomes clear that they have seriously hedged their bets with something resembling the aforementioned “hybrid approach.”  Yes, ongoing conversations are encouraged, but read a bit more closely and it’s clear that the act of evaluating remains.

PE and Poop Cropped1They blur up rating categories, but still have them.  They eliminate grades, but cling to numbers.  They abandon numbers, but substitute descriptions.  They shorten evaluation sessions, but still have them.  Some attempt to keep the grades confidential, but more often than not, performance rating remains in one form or another.

“We need grades for salaries,” cry apologetic HR leaders.  “We’ve got to document the file for terminations and identify promotional candidates,” shout others.

Here we go again.  Right back where we started.

If I want my dog to quit eating deer droppings, maybe I should stop walking him in the woods.  Either that or get a cat.

So, how can we truly abandon performance evaluations and stop serving poop?

  • Coach, Don’t Judge:  It is not the annual cycle that’s the problem.  It’s the whole grading paradigm.  Grades end a conversation.  Coaching starts one.
  • Keep it Simple: Structure a series of highly engaging and powerfully impactful conversations.  Using something that gives it structure, process, and a time budget. Click Here to see our tried, true method that’s been used successfully for nearly twenty years.
  • Think “HR Lite”: Stewardship of daily, weekly or even monthly conversations about performance and potential IS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN in the real world.  People have jobs to do.  Less is more.
  • Strategic Focus:  Daily and weekly conversations, by their very nature, are going to be much more tactical than strategic.  Making ongoing adjustments is not the same as providing thematic counseling or career guidance.
  • Follow the Money: You don’t really need to kill a bunch of trees to justify the difference between a 2 and 3.5% annual pay bump.  Most of the adjustment to base pay actually comes from company budget and an individual’s compa-ratio (current pay vs. market for that position).

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