Putting Performance Reviews On Probation The employee performance review is getting a review itself, and some business leaders argue the evaluations are all but worthless. Managers don't offer useful criticism, according to many HR professionals, while workers refuse to talk about doubts or weak points.
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Putting Performance Reviews On Probation

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Putting Performance Reviews On Probation

Putting Performance Reviews On Probation

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

In a lot of offices and workplaces, it's time for the dreaded annual performance review. You know the ritual: The employee goes into the boss's office, or it may be a conference room, to face a checklist of questions about strengths and weaknesses and listen to an overall evaluation. Often they're then asked to sign it.

Some managers will confess they only do it because their bosses insist on it. A lot of workers emerge more confused than ever.

We want to hear from both managers and employees today. When did performance reviews work or not? Tell us your story. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

R: How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing and Focus on What Really Matters." Nice to have you on the program today.

SAMUEL CULBERT: Thanks, Neal, good to be here.

CONAN: And from the title of that book, I would put you down as undecided.


CULBERT: It's the most ridiculous practice in the world. It's bogus, fraudulent, dishonest at its core, and it reflects stupid, bad, cowardly management. Besides that, I like it.


CONAN: I said it's a good thing. All right, cowardly management? Why that?

CULBERT: Absolutely. It allows the bad managers to hide. They scare - the threat of the performance review is always intimidating to the employees. They know what it takes to get a good review, a good report. They know all it takes is the manager has to like them.

So what are they going to do? All year long, they tell the manager, the boss, back to his or her face what they think that person wants to hear. The boss doesn't get the real idea of - the real story from the employee. In fact, the employee almost always starts going to work for the boss and not for the company.

CONAN: I see. And of course, there can be a distinction there. Can you give us a little history? When did the performance review make its debut?

CULBERT: Oh, it was some dumb idea called management by objectives that hit the workplace right after - it was in the late '50s, early '60s. They thought that they could, that the bosses could make their lives easy for themselves by on day one stipulating for the employee: Here are your objectives. Here's what you need to do.

And then they could go out, play golf and come back, and the employees would either - either they brought in those - that list of objectives, and the numbers made sense, or they didn't, and then the boss could get mad at the employee. It made no sense at all, never made any sense.

CONAN: Well, was it an innovation at big companies, where human resources departments wanted a paper trail on all of their employees?

CULBERT: Well, the paper trail is another issue, Neal. The paper trail - but no, it was rationalistic management. It was an idea that if you - that you can make things objective by quantifying them. And they were making things, they were quantifying - the message they would use to quantify often caused the company to have bad results instead of good results. They told the salesman look, here's your goals for the year. Last year you sold this. This year, you should sell something more.

CONAN: X percent more, yeah.

CULBERT: That's right. So now the salesman goes out, and he starts selling but gets - and starts colluding with his customers to get them better deals because he's not being evaluated, she's not being evaluated on the character of the sales or not communicating back to the company about, look, we could change our product line. That person says here - I'm going to meet my numbers.

Well, the same thing's going on with bosses today. Bosses are trying to meet their numbers. Do you know how they're trying to meet their numbers? They're trying to - they evaluate employees on some baloney curve. Twenty percent of the employees get excellent, 70 percent average, 10 percent either they're shipping out, or - if they don't improve.

Well, what's going on here? The boss will meet his numbers. So what does that mean to meet the numbers? They can go tell - she's going to go tell 70 percent of his or her direct reports your average. Well, that is - that's not the boss's job. The boss's job is to make everybody excellent, not to tell - not to insult people.

I don't - Neal, if I told you, better yet if I told your mother that you were average...


CULBERT: Are you going to like that?

CONAN: No, not when I got home. But the Anderson School of Management, do they have performance reviews there?

CULBERT: I'll say they do.


CULBERT: Everybody gets performance reviews.

CONAN: I think it's a universal - it's a universal evaluation.

CULBERT: And what are they quantifying? They use metrics. They use the same metrics for an accounting professor or for a finance professor. They don't do the same thing. And they use terms for the metrics. The metrics, just like at work, they use the same for salespeople and for accounting. Well, we can't even get people to agree on what the words that they're using to evaluate people on mean.

I: shows initiative. For another boss, he takes the same behavior and says that's - doesn't take direction. I mean, it's just ridiculous. Who agrees on the term: shows leadership? Communicates well? What does that mean? I mean, clearly it only means different things to different people.

CONAN: Well, let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Managers, employees, when do performance reviews work? When don't they? We'll start with Alyssa(ph), Alyssa with us from Cincinnati.

ALYSSA: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ALYSSA: I'm in a very small company right now, less than 30 people. And I actually wish we would have some type of performance reviews because I think it might actually force the absent management to kind of notice what's going on and then, you know, the people who are really pitching in 110 percent may get some recognition, and the people who really aren't carrying their weight could face some consequences rather than everything just kind of continuing. And, you know, when you keep on dead weight, it kind of drags the whole ship down.

CONAN: So you don't have them at all?

ALYSSA: Correct.

CONAN: And it's some kind of - some system to hold people accountable would be helpful, then?

ALYSSA: That would be lovely.


CONAN: Samuel Culbert, I think that's...

CULBERT: How about holding people accountable before there's a disaster? How about having performance previews? How about telling the boss your job - your job is to make your direct reports successful? Why make the direct reports be evaluated without the boss, whose job it is to make him or her - that employee successful in bringing in results for the company?

I: we're going to redefine the job. Your job is - you succeed only when your employees succeed. So it's no longer: you'd better find out about your employees, you'd better find out what's wonderful about them and start playing to their strengths rather than sitting back and once a year, because we are going to force you now, you get to tell the employee, here's what's wrong with you, and I'm objective, and I'm speaking for the company.

Well, the boss is not objective, and the boss doesn't speak for the company. Take that employee, put him in another department. He or she is going to be scored very differently. We know that. We've run the studies, and we know that.

CONAN: Alyssa, thanks very much for the call, and good luck with your company.

ALYSSA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Here's an email from David(ph) in Salt Lake City: As anyone who's endured a performance review in a toxic environment can tell you, performance reviews in such an atmosphere can be a nightmare.

My last performance review before I was ultimately fired was dragged out through half-a-dozen excruciating meetings and at least that many hours. The boss kept moving the goalposts, eventually wrote it herself based on a conversation with another employee who had nothing to do with my department. It was a farce.

WGBH: Hate To Give Them, Hate to Give Them." Nice to have you on the program today.

And from what you've been hearing, are we describing this process accurately?

CULBERT: Well (unintelligible).

ALLAN POLAK: Hello Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead, Allan.

POLAK: Hello, Neal, it's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And nice to have you with us.

POLAK: I'd say you're describing it quite accurately, both you, Neal, and Sam on the West Coast. It's much more often a nightmare than anything that's valuable.

CONAN: So why do they persist?

CULBERT: (Unintelligible).


CONAN: Samuel Culbert, why don't you let Allan Polak answer it just a second.

POLAK: Having worked in the industry for over 25 years, the annual review I think really got started as a result of some collusion between the HR department and the law department in order to create a written trail when somebody isn't doing their job well.

And over the years, it has morphed into the annual ritual that is inflicted upon everybody.

CONAN: Oh, so they can say: We've had this annual review of all of our employees, and as you can see, Joe Schmegegy(ph), we've got this trail saying he's done poorly the last five years consecutively, and therefore, we can justify firing him.

POLAK: That's correct. It started out as a way to create the trail. Unfortunately, it has morphed into this fallacious process that the organization tries to market as valuable when, nine times out of 10, it's more harm than good.

CONAN: Yet clearly, as we heard in the call from Melissa, there does need to be some sort of accountability process, and there does seem to be some kind of a process by which managers and employees can look at each other and say you need to work on this, you need to get better at that.

POLAK: That's correct. That's correct. And like Sam mentioned...

CULBERT: Why don't they just - why don't people just talk honestly? You don't have to tell the employee what she or he is doing wrong. You have to create a level playing field. The employee can tell you better than you could ever tell the employee whether he or she needs to get better and grow him or herself.

What the performance review pretends to improve performance, the performance review in just its very existence destroys performance. It makes it impossible for people to have authentic, honest conversations about how - what we need to be doing differently.

Let's talk about what's imperfect around here. People can't have those conversations because of performance reviews, can't get an honest discussion going.

CONAN: Samuel Culbert, he's at UCLA's Anderson School of Management. Also with us is Allan Polak, president of ALP Consulting Resources in West Hartford in Connecticut. He's joining us from WGBH, our member station in Boston.

We want to hear from you, your stories. When do performance reviews work? When don't they? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Non-work inquisitiveness, meritorious performance, needs to better utilize available enablers. Well, we're talking performance reviews today, why many say they're useless and what managers and employees can do about it.

We've collected some of the top euphemisms our audience found on their reviews. You can find those at npr.org/thetwoway, all one word. We want to hear from both managers and employees. When did performance reviews work or not? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

UCLA: How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing and Focus on What Really Matters." Also with us, Allan Polak, president of the ALP Consulting Resources in West Hartford, Connecticut. We've posted a link to his article, "Performance Reviews: Hate to Give Them, Hate to Get Them," at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's see if we can go next to Tony. Tony's with us from Sacramento.

TONY: Hey, good afternoon, gentlemen, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Thank you, go ahead.

TONY: Basically, my experience was one from an office furniture manufacturer, and as a brand new employee, basically I was told this is the process. Every year, you would get reviewed. This would be so much money you'd be eligible for your raise, and if you did good at your review, you would get this whole raise. And based on your performance of the year, it would dictate how much of that raise you would be eligible for. So...

CONAN: And what actually happened?

TONY: After about four years, I started recognizing that I was never going to get the full raise because basically the people in my department that were more friendly, more outgoing, more team players - and team players were big issues back then - they got the full raises.

They were the ones that basically got the bosses' favor, and they got the full raises. I got basically you need improvement at this, and if you improve at this, we'll get you this, and if you improve at that, we'll give you this.

They put me through team-building, diversity training, all kinds of things to help me become an extrovert because they discovered I was an introvert. I got to the point where I was like, well, for a private company, I think I'm going to stand a better chance of getting ahead going to work in a civil...

CONAN: Civil service kind of a deal, yeah. Allan Polak...

TONY: ...base their raises based on time.

CONAN: Yet, let me turn to you just a moment, and we mentioned the paper trail to get rid of an employee. The raise, or the mythical raise sometimes, that's also another purpose of the performance review.

POLAK: Well, it's unfortunate that that's the purpose of the review because when you hold those two things together in the same conversation - imagine you're on the receiving end. What's going through your head? You want to know: Am I getting a raise? How much? Am I getting a bonus? How much? And the rest is just the fluff of the ritual that goes around that.

I: I'm your boss, and a key part of my job is to help you succeed.

So let's talk about what you're good at, and let's talk about the things you should probably keep getting better at. And then turn it over to the employee and let the employee start the conversation. Then the manager can speak off of that.

CONAN: And Sam Culbert, you've also said that, in fact, wages, bonuses, that sort of thing, they're set by the market and usually predetermined before you ever go into a performance review meeting, and it doesn't have a lot to do with it.

CULBERT: Absolutely. And what you get is an illusion, another dishonest facet of a performance review. The boss sits down with his boss, and they discuss what they're going to give people in the way of enhancements, financial enhancements.

Then after they get - they're not talking about an open-ended pie. They're talking about this year we can afford 10 percent more for your department. So they divvy the money up.

Then, after they've decided how much we have to give so-and-so, or she's going to leave, or what we've got to do to get this person because he just got married, now they decide okay, what do we tell them?

So they've taken care of the money. Now what are we going to tell people? But the deeper issue, Neal, is: Why do we continue with this? The cat is out of the bag. Everybody knows.

The people who give them know it's fraudulent. They know it's dishonest. They hate giving them. That's why HR once a year has to scare the guys up to go give the reviews. People don't - nobody comes out of a meeting saying they had a good time, even the guys who - even the people who come out of the meeting ahead say it was all baloney. Okay, so why does this continue to exist today?

CONAN: All right, let's get a call next. This is Josh(ph), Josh with us from Heartland in Michigan.

JOSH: Hi, good afternoon. You know, with all respect to the two guests that you have on the air today, I just have a different opinion. I'm 26 years old. I'm in my third job since I've come out of college. I'm actually a director of a department of a nonprofit - a department within a nonprofit association here in Michigan. And I manage a staff of four.

My two previous jobs, I never had a performance review, and as someone who was striving to succeed and move up at those organizations, I found it very frustrating that there was no formal review mechanism.

Now in my role as a department director, I'm giving the performance reviews, and I have to go through my own performance review with my boss, as well.

I have to say that I enjoy the process. I enjoy giving the opportunity for my employees or my department staff to come back to me with their ideas about how they think we can do things better not only within our department but across the organization. I find it to be a very genuine process, and I find it to be one of the only opportunities that you have really throughout the year to really be honest about your accomplishments and try to leverage those for financial compensation in the coming year.

You know, to simply frame it as all performance reviews are bad or to simply say that it's a disingenuous process across the board I think is an overgeneralization. And I think it's truly about the way that the organization, the CEO and the department managers frame the performance review in terms of how valuable the process can be.

But to simply say that it doesn't work, and it's disingenuous I think is a gross generalization because I've had the completely opposite experience from what your panel's describing.

CONAN: Sam Culbert?

CULBERT: Well, obviously he likes it.

CONAN: Yeah.

CULBERT: And the performance reviews so far are good for him. Look, he's 26 years old. He's a director, and he thinks he's going some place. And I wish him well.

But the logic on which the performance reviews are based is just fraudulent. I've taken - in my book, I take every single justification for performance review and take it apart and show that it's all based on a fraudulent logic.

This guy is doing terrific. And you get people who succeed, they like it. But I'm talking about fixing the broken system.

CONAN: I understand, and I thought Josh used an interesting word. He said it's an opportunity to talk about plans for the future. You've written about something you call - saying don't do a performance review, do a performance preview. Work ahead.

CULBERT: Not only do you work ahead, but talking about the future shouldn't be a once-a-year occasion. And talking about skills to be developed shouldn't just be once a year - or in his company apparently, once a year you get a chance to talk about your positives and have the company celebrate it.

That celebration should take place anytime a person needs it, and it shouldn't take place because people are using words. Let's look at the accomplishments. Are we - is the company and the organization getting ahead? Are people learning and accomplishing?

JOSH: Neal, I think that your guest just touched on an important point, and that is, like I just said, it's about the context in which these reviews are framed. It's about the buy-in that you get from the staff before you conduct them. And it's about what you do with them between, during and after the review process.

But again, just to say that performance reviews are bad across the board, and they're a disingenuous process, and they're faulty, and they're built on false principles, again, I think is way, way overstepping it. Because if organizations do it right, it can be a valuable tool and one that can really lead to growth not only at the individual level but also at the organizational level.

And I appreciate you guys raising this issue today. Thank you.

CONAN: And thanks for the call, Josh.

CULBERT: Well, see, I believe you can do a lot better. I believe people only know from performance reviews, and that's - and in the absence of that, they haven't thought it through deeply enough.

Look, you want to get - for most people, obviously not this man, for most people, they're intimidated. For most people, they're not talking about what they really think. They're talking about what the boss will buy. You've got to get rid of it.

I: I tell it straight. That was the implication.

CONAN: Right.

CULBERT: Most people can't say that they tell it straight. Most people say: I bite my tongue, and I tell the boss what she or he needs to hear. I want to create a level playing field so that people can talk openly and honestly about what they think about how we're working together and what can be improved. I want to give managers a motivation to score with the people, not just to require people to score with them.

I want to see bosses going out and saying, tell me, how are you doing? What - how can I help you? What am I doing that you like? What am I doing that gets in your way? Tell me, why is it getting in your way? This is very personal all of a sudden. What are you not getting that you need? And I wonder if I can get that - more of those resources for you. I want that established.

Then I want people talking on a daily basis or never, if they don't need to, about what's going on and how we're doing together in getting the results. At the end of the day, I want the boss held accountable for the employees succeeding.

CONAN: And, Sam Culbert, we wish you great success at your next performance review meeting there at the Anderson School of Business at - excuse me, Anderson School of Management at UCLA. Thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Let's go now to - this is Eric. Eric with us from Binghamton in New York.

ERIC: Hey, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

ERIC: Great. Great. I'm glad you can take my call.

CONAN: Thanks. Go ahead, please.

ERIC: I'm actually listening to all this - I actually believe both with Sam and your guest.

CONAN: Allan Polak, yes.

ERIC: That's right. Yeah. I'm sorry. And here's what I'm thinking. I'm thinking if we take the review, give it to the employees to review the boss, that'll turn everything around. The employee will be able to give his say about the boss. Now, if the boss can't take the review, you know, then he's got to work out some things that he has to take care off and vice versa. Now - and we have - the employee will have - every six months, they'll have a review on them.

CONAN: Allan Polak, might that be...

ERIC: Once a year, you can give it - you know, employees will put it on the boss.

CONAN: Allan Polak, might it be useful to reverse the process?

POLAK: Some companies actually do reverse the process, but it has to be a really healthy culture, because imagine you're the employee and you're going to provide some feedback to your boss about what you like about what he or she is doing or not. And the boss is going to hear that and say, well, gee, either I agree, thanks a lot or, gee, you know, I don't really like hearing that from you. And then the employee worries about, uh-oh, I've broken some - the relationship I have with my boss. Going back to the comment...

ERIC: You know, if the employee is working with his boss, they should be working hand in hand. I can't...

CONAN: Sadly, Eric, that's not...

ERIC: Maybe it's just me.

CONAN: That's not true in a lot of places.

ERIC: Right.

POLAK: Yeah. And I like the phrase that Eric uses. In a healthy environment, the experience will be that you are working with your boss. In many organizations, the experience is you're working for your boss.

ERIC: Right.

POLAK: And I'm convinced from the research and from anecdotal data that if you did a big body of research and you looked at what's the biggest predictor in terms of getting a good review and a good raise, it's how well does your boss like you and how well do you get along and trust each other.

ERIC: Right.

POLAK: One thing that professional sports figured out long ago is that the team has the manager and then there's the coaches. Organizations expect the boss to be both manager and coach in the very same body. So when the employee is talking to the manager, they're never quite sure, am I talking to the manager who makes decisions about whether I play in the game or not, or am I talking to the coach who's supposed to help me get better at what I do?

If I'm a baseball player and I cannot hit the fastball on the outside corner, I don't go to my manager and say, hey, can you help me with this? Because the manager is going to say, well, don't play tonight if you're struggling.

CONAN: You're going to go to AAA and work on it.

POLAK: Yeah.

CONAN: Eric...

POLAK: Go to the - I go to the coach. That's what he's there for.

CONAN: Eric, thanks very much for the call. We're talking - well, performance reviewing the performance review.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email. This, we have from Angela in Oregon. I spent a number of years as a manager in the medical administrative field. I was writing up to 25 reviews every year. Yuck. However, I never surprised an employee with something on a review they did not know about. In fact, it's bad management to wait until review time to bring something up. Though writing the reviews is a monumental amount of work, it doesn't have to be an awful experience if problems are dealt with in real time. My employees knew where they stood with me and the business at all times. And that's something you've written about, Allan...

POLAK: Yeah.

CONAN: ...is if that's the one meeting you're going to have to review performance all year long, don't bother.

POLAK: Don't do it, right. One of the most valuable things a boss can do at the beginning of the year or the beginning of the cycle is just say to the employee, gee, a key part of my job is to help you succeed. How often would you like to touch base during the course of the year for us to have a conversation about what's working well and what needs to work better? And let the employee say how often they'd like to connect.

Adults like to have a sense of choice and control. If the employee says, well, let's do it two or three times a year, then you can say fine. And the boss can then say, well, you tell me, how would you like to structure the conversation so that it serves you best? That's a much more productive way to go about doing it.

CONAN: Well, let's talk to Gary. Gary with us from Little Rock.

GARY: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead.

GARY: Well, I hate to seem like I'm beating a dead horse, but it's definitely, as was mentioned earlier, that, you know, it's not a yearly objective, your performance reviews. Now, I'm in the army and we have annual counseling statements and evaluations, but it's also something that's ongoing.

POLAK: Right.

GARY: We do something good, there's a counseling statement. We do something bad, we drive a truck into the wall, then here's a counseling statement for that. And...

CONAN: So it's a regular process and, you'll forgive me, the drill sergeant reminds you when you're - when you've made a small mistake.

GARY: Yes, they do and all the time because you're with these people quite a bit. Everybody's always keeping on top of each other. And we also evaluate our higher ups as well.

POLAK: That's right.

CONAN: So it works both ways. And that's, Allan Polak, something else you've said. It needs to work both ways.

POLAK: That's correct. And I know the military does operate that way, and that's why there's powerful accountability about people's behavior, both from the boss' point of view and from the subordinate's point of view.

CONAN: All right.

GARY: Now, you see, my wife is an accountant and she's in a large firm. And they have very similar methods, but they don't use them.


GARY: And so, a lot of times, it seems that there's these systems in place that are just not being used. That's the...

CONAN: Or they're being used pro forma rather being used constructively or actually to make things better. Gary, I'm afraid we're out of time. But thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

GARY: Absolutely. Thank you.

CONAN: And Allan Polak, we need to thank you for your time today, too.

POLAK: Hey, been my pleasure.

CONAN: Allan Polak, president of ALP Consulting Resources, based in West Hartford, Connecticut. He joined us today from WGBH, a member station in Boston. He wrote an article called "Performance Reviews: Hate To Give Them, Hate To Get Them." You can find a link to it at our website. That's an npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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