As I See It: Reviewing Performance Reviews
November 9, 2020 Victor Rozek
I started working at the age of 15 for a ship chandler on the San Francisco docks. Like many entry-level blue-collar positions, there wasn’t any talk of job descriptions or performance expectations. Basically, some burly guy told me what to do, and I did it.
Over the ensuing decades, however, I’ve had a goodly number of white-collar jobs replete with detailed job descriptions, project goals, and deadlines, all anchored by the assurance of regular performance evaluations. None of it materialized exactly as advertised. In a dynamic, rapidly changing environment, what you end up doing is often not precisely what you were hired to do, making performance evaluations, awkward, uninspired events. I honestly cannot remember the particulars of a single performance review. I can’t recall whether they were helpful and if so, how. My lasting impression is that they were mildly unpleasant experiences that had to be endured, by both employee and manger, and whose chief benefit was, that once concluded, they didn’t have to be endured again for another six months.
With the pandemic still raging and people forced to work from home, the thought of preparing for a performance review seems superfluous and needlessly stressful. And as far as I can tell, no one these days is suffering from a stress deficiency.
So, what’s the point?
Ostensibly, performance evaluations exist to give feedback to employees and to guide their career development. But realistically, they are more of a Human Resources tool. For corporations, performance reviews offer legal protections. They provide managers with an opportunity to put wayward employees on the dreaded Performance Improvement Plan, a series of must-do steps that, if not followed, provide a legal, documented case for termination.
In a recent article, Jena McGregor, a contributor to the Washington Post and former associate editor for BusinessWeek, acknowledged that “the pandemic has forced more companies to reevaluate their performance reviews, long the bane of employees and their managers. The shift has accelerated a trend toward more frequent feedback and greater focus on career development.”
Feedback is the key. Anything that comes as a surprise during a performance review is an indication that the manager has not been doing her/his job. There’s nothing more discouraging from a career development perspective than believing in yourself and discovering your manager doesn’t.
Regardless, “career development” is an idealized misnomer. Advancement is often the byproduct of mentorship, and there is a limit to how many people a given manager can mentor. Usually that number is one. The reality is that every step up the ladder has far more people competing for it than the available jobs. And you don’t need a performance review to know who Daddy’s favorite is. Besides, people are hired to fill specific functions, and managers are typically not eager to move them up the ladder thus losing a capable performer and leaving a necessary position unfilled. Basically, if you’re good at what you do, there is every incentive to keep you doing it.
While the pandemic is a stress superspreader, it puts disproportionate strain on single parents. Working from home while simultaneously providing childcare or homeschooling is daunting enough without also having to curry favor with management. But with or without children, McGregor reports that at-home workers are at a proximity disadvantage. According to Brian Kropp, vice president of research at Gartner, “Managers are more likely to positively acknowledge people who are in the office, while remote workers are more likely to get corrective feedback.”
Those who brave the office environment are thought of more as a Band of Brothers (and sisters) while those sequestered at home gradually become outsiders. In short, managers are starting to realize that “the pandemic created such divergent circumstances among employees that it would not be fair to compare their performance in a formal evaluation.”
McGregor cites two recent surveys that suggest companies are beginning to notice and respond. The first queried over 300 employers, 5 percent of whom either “put reviews on hold or canceled them” altogether. While 5 percent is far from majority consensus, it may signal a vanguard of shifting thought about how and if performance reviews should be administered.
A second, somewhat larger sampling of over 1,300 HR administrators revealed that 47 percent were either considering or “had made changes to their employees’ performance goals.”
The thinking behind these shifts is that people who work remotely will, of necessity, be checking in with their manager (and vice-versa) more frequently and more regularly than office employees. Goals, expectations, and performance-related feedback can and should be handled on an on-going basis.
Additionally, a number of companies, prior to covid19, moved to some variation of the so-called “360 degree review” where employees get feedback not only from their manager but also from each other and direct reports. That model is problematic when the people doing the reviewing no longer have a direct connection with the person being reviewed.
In times of crisis and unexpected change, qualities such as flexibility and adaptability should be acknowledged and rewarded. But management should also understand – if they haven’t already experienced it – that living for long periods of time with high levels of stress takes a psychic toll. And these days our sources of stress are many. Not only do we contend with the possibility of job loss, reduced hours, or furlough – with all its financial implications –caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the unprecedented destructive impacts of climate change which now brings annual devastation, and the accelerating social unrest in which neighbors can become enemies based solely on political affiliation. Some days it seems that success can be measured by neither becoming suicidal nor homicidal.
No one needs more judgment right now. No one needs more stress. The question to be asked and answered by managers is not: How did you do since your last performance review? But, how can I help?
My first employment experience working on the docks was a summer job so there was no performance review, but there was something akin to a rite of passage. At the end of my first week some longshoremen took me to a waterfront bar. I remember sitting on a barstool between two huge guys and the bartender walking up, glancing down at me, and saying; “Jesus Christ Harry, how old is that kid?”
“He’s 34, leave him alone,” answered the longshoreman. The bartender stared at me for a long second, shrugged his shoulders and said: “What’ll you have, son?”
That may be the best performance review I ever got.