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Imagine if the colleague sitting next to you at work every day could go to the boss and criticize you - anonymously. You might never know it happened. This was one of the revelations in a New York Times article last week about the workplace culture at Amazon, that the online retailer uses evaluations like this - co-workers criticizing one another. This is known as peer performance review, or 360 review. Versions of these have actually been in wide use for years. And as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, they've always been controversial.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Bruce Elliott harbors some strong feelings about his experiences with peer reviews.
BRUCE ELLIOTT: Very, very political, and it was very toxic.
NOGUCHI: Elliott manages compensation and benefits for the Society for Human Resource Management. Previously, he was a manager at two large companies that used 360 peer reviews. Most often, he says, it was a venue for petty personal attacks.
ELLIOTT: I was running down these rabbit holes, you know, where there was a perceived issue with regard to maybe a team member's performance. So, you know, I'd investigate that and find out, oh, wait a minute, this person has an agenda. That's about three hours of my workday I'm never going to get back.
NOGUCHI: Elliott says allowing anonymous criticism simply ratcheted up the viciousness and demoralization.
ELLIOTT: Let's throw a bomb. I mean, I'm not going to face any consequence for it because it's anonymous.
NOGUCHI: Eventually, he says, both companies abandoned the practice.
ELLIOTT: It didn't do the business and it certainly didn't do the employee any bit of service that we were dealing not so much with data or analytics, but we were dealing with perception.
NOGUCHI: Karen Hallowell had a very different experience overseeing nearly two decades of peer evaluations. Hallowell is an administrator at the George School in Newtown, Pa.
KAREN HALLOWELL: What it really did is made us a very dynamic, agile team.
NOGUCHI: Hallowell says there were certain rules. The feedback had to be constructive and professional. Initially, it was anonymous, but they then switched to a system where everyone saw who submitted the critique. She says soliciting feedback forced different personality types to discuss their problems, which was useful if not always easy.
Did you ever have any tears in this process?
HALLOWELL: Oh, tears? Sure.
NOGUCHI: Sometimes, she says, it required her to smooth over the aftermath of a review taken personally. In one instance, one employee faced multiple critics.
HALLOWELL: So not only did I need to work with the individual who was ganged up on, but I also had to - we had to create a process by which the healing and growth came on the part of the others.
NOGUCHI: By far, the biggest question, besides to do or not to do peer review at all, is whether co-workers ought to remain anonymous, at least to the person getting reviewed. And on that score, human resources consultant Marijan Pavisic is unequivocal.
MARIJAN PAVISIC: We strongly urge to do anonymously.
NOGUCHI: Pavisic's one company defied this recommendation. Instead, they gathered the executives together in a conference room and read their reviews of each other aloud.
PAVISIC: Joe said about Bob, you know, this and that. And Joanne said about Michael this and that. What happened is actually two of the senior VPs resigned because they took it so personally. The distraction to the business for the next week was horrendous because they kept arguing.
NOGUCHI: Pavisic does not use 360 reviews at his own firm, Zagreb Global. He doesn't urge corporate clients to either because he thinks their business utility is limited and the potential for damage to morale is high. Yet the number of clients requesting peer reviews this year increased 50 percent over last year. He expects eventually, the trend will die down.
PAVISIC: There's a lot of pushback from employees.
NOGUCHI: But some believe full disclosure is not only good but here to stay. Stephanie Jenkins is an account manager for Glassdoor, a site that allows employees to leave anonymous reviews about the companies where they work. She says workers are demanding transparency from outside and from within, including at Glassdoor itself.
STEPHANIE JENKINS: We try to encourage people to speak up, too. So if we see that someone isn't giving feedback on a regular basis, we will try to ask them.
NOGUCHI: Jenkins says she loves Glassdoor's own internal 360 review.
JENKINS: We want to hear the good, the bad, the ugly that's going on in the organization. We want to know it with our organization, too, so that we know what we can improve on.
NOGUCHI: If done often enough, she says, the criticisms are seldom a surprise. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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