When performance reviews fail to achieve goals

Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC

It’s one of the most dreaded workplace rituals, hated by employees and managers alike: the performance review. And the recent scandal surrounding the firing of eight U.S attorneys even though most of them reportedly received good reviews pokes more holes in a process used by almost every large organization in the country.

But whine as you will, these job evaluations that typically come just once a year aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, they’re used more today than ever before. Reviews are even going digital, with a growing number of companies are putting the whole process online.

“No one likes to be evaluated,” says Stephanie Payne, assistant professor of psychology at Texas A&M University. “It’s also a cumbersome process for managers depending on how many direct reports they have. And it’s uncomfortable for every one involved, especially if you have to provide negative feedback.”

The biggest tension often arises because the review is in most cases tied to an employee’s compensation, thus connecting the process to a worker’s livelihood. If that doesn’t create anxiety, I don’t know what will.

And many managers don’t take the process seriously, having subordinated fill out their own evaluations which they then sign off on. In other cases the reviews have no bearing on an employee’s fate.

Take the Justice Department's firing of several U.S. attorneys. The process of evaluating them was actually quite involved, managed by a team of government officials that interviewed judges and other individuals who had dealings with the prosecutors. According to published reports, most of attorneys got positive reviews but were then pink-slipped anyway.

While politics and mishandling may make reviews seem a useless exercise, Payne believes when done right they provide the type of feedback most employees are yearning for and give companies a better understanding of who are the high performers on their payroll.

James Bowles, the vice president of workforce development for Cingular/AT&T, says reviews are valuable tools when it comes to determining promotions or terminations. “It can’t be happenstance,” he adds.

Problems with reviews, he says, arise when supervisors are not properly trained in giving them or are not given the right tools. The company has gone to paperless reviews, so everything is tracked online, but that has not eliminated face-to-face interaction.

Before the electronic system there were some cases at the telecommunications company where an employee ended up getting terminated but managers were unable to find their reviews on file, says Bowles. Now the company has a record of everything review-related for all its 64,000 employees.

Wachovia is also using an online system that provides e-mail reminders to its staff that midyear and year-end reviews are due.

Bob Brotherton, senior vice president, leadership development for Wachovia, says the bank realized having reviews only once a year wasn’t enough. “We wanted to force the conversation twice a year,” he adds.

Companies rely heavily on reviews because any documentation of an employee’s performance is used as evidence by employers when a terminated or demoted worker feels they were fired for reasons other than the way they do their job. If you fire a minority worker and have no record of ever noting weak performance, juries may be inclined to side with the employee in a lawsuit, experts say.

Jon Ciampi, vice president of marketing and product management for SumTotal, an online review tools provider, says its products allow companies to scan for derogatory words that could get a firm in discriminatory hot water. “Hot chick,” he quipped, would definitely be flagged.

With technology making it easier for employers to get the most they can out of reviews, workers might have to accept that these tools will probably remain a fact of work life.

So, how do you make the process less painful and use it to your advantage?

“It's important to make sure your manager knows your accomplishments before the performance review takes place," said James Smither, a professor of management at La Salle University. "This can be accomplished by sending e-mail updates as important projects or milestones are accomplished throughout the year or by preparing a written summary of your work objectives throughout the year and what you have accomplished toward each objective, as well as other accomplishments or activities, especially those that the manager might be unfamiliar with.”

Here are more tips for the review itself from staffing firm Vedior North America:

  • Leave your ego at the door — be receptive to constructive feedback and welcome suggestions for improving  your performance.
  • Don't be shy about being open with your manager about your goals and aspirations. Too often employees wait to be "tapped on the shoulder" for a promotion or other  opportunities within the company, while at the same time their employer may wrongly assume they are not interested in a promotion because they have never  expressed that interest. The performance review meeting is not only an opportunity for your employer to share their assessment of your performance, but also a great opportunity for you to speak freely about  your goals.
  • When responding to questions on a performance review form, such as, "Is there anything the company can  do to improve?" be cautious not to take this as an invitation to  complain.  If there is a legitimate issue at your company that would be appropriate to address in this forum, definitely outline what it is, but be sure to also propose a potential (and realistic) solution along with it.
  • If your manager gives you a low rating in any area that perplexes you and you feel is unfair, don't just sit there and nod your head and later feel hostile about it. In a non-defensive way, ask them if they can share specific examples with you  so that you can gain a better understanding of what the problem is so that  you can correct it.
  • Become an expert at your current job before asking for a promotion or asking to take on new responsibilities. The best way to prove that you are ready to tackle more responsibilities is to master your current ones.
  • Employees should offer ideas and solutions about other departments and divisions within the company to  their managers. This shows a manager that you see the bigger picture of the company.

If you still can’t stomach the whole process you can always opt to become a entrepreneur or work for a smaller company where performance reviews are still a rare animal.

Returning to the U. S. attorneys controversy, the whole matter may end up costing the job of their former boss, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.  I wonder if his performance reviews will make any difference.