The Dreaded Performance Review Season


What ratings really mean…

Tis the Season For My Moaning…

It is that time of year for me – performance reviews.  I hate this annual exercise.  It is a reminder for me, annually, how little control I have over this alleged thing called a “career.”  (Go read my book Business Rules for more on careers)  I rate the experience somewhere between ingrown toenail removal and root canal in terms of fun.  I enjoy supporting my people in the process, slugging it out for ratings, making the case for promotions, etc. I simply detest the overburden associated with my own career and my hatred of rating against a curve.

It’s not that I get bad ratings and I’m just angry as a result.  I’m bitter for far more complicated reasons than mere numerical ratings.   I dislike the whole annual discussion about my career.  I’m over fifty and it feels at times like they should be playing a funeral dirge during discussions of my future.  The opportunities for promotion and advancement dwindle more (in my mind anyway) every year.  And stop telling me I own my own career.  I can’t tell you the number of times previous managers have hosed me out of job opportunities or assigned me to teams, departments, and managers without any control on my part.  It is a tad depressing and one of the chief reasons I have fostered a career as a bestselling where I have some degree of control over my own destiny.  (They never should have encouraged me to take ownership of my career…I interpreted that very differently than they did.  Ha!)

The Dreaded Bell Curve

There’s more to my dread of performance reviews.  I hate the fact that we do performance reviews against a curve.  Many organizations force employee ratings against a bell curve.  In other words, the majority of the people get a rating near the middle (let’s say a 3 out of 5), with fewer people getting higher or lower ratings.  Forced ratings mean there are target numbers for each rating and managers have to hit those numbers.

Forcing employees into the curve does several things. First, it makes managers compare employees against each other.  On the surface that sounds fine, after all management loves it when we battle each other and not them.  Often it is hard to make some comparisons because of the nature of the work, the type of work environment, etc.  It is also very difficult to have any degree of consistency between managers.  The standards of comparison for one manager often varies greatly when matched against another peer manager.

All it takes is one person to break ranks for the entire system to be corrupted.  In the real world, that breaking of ranks is often for good reason.  “Hey, my entire team pulled off a minor miracle over the last six months – they all deserve a higher rating.”  Sometimes, however, the manager in question is simply ignoring the curve in the ratings distribution because, well, they are a douchebag.

So managers break rank with each other and chaos ensues.  If everyone adheres to the bell curve, you can make the forced ratings work.  It doesn’t make them right – it means they work.  In the real world, there’s always a rogue leader who comes in and ranks his people all 4’s and 5’s and tries to force his/her colleagues to sacrifice  their high ranked employees to give him/her the numbers they need to fit the curve.  In some cases the use of forced ratings against a curve becomes more of a negotiation and bidding war between managers than a fair system.  “You just need to lower Bob’s rating to a three so that I can give Judy a four.”

Reviews roll up in the organization.  So while your immediate work team may have met the curve, other teams may not have.  When the curves are rolled up, there are inevitable “adjustments” i.e., a handful of people who were rated at 4’s or 5’s get bumped down to meet the curve.  In some organizations this is done without the consent and discussion with the manager – meaning that at some point in the process, a manager gets a surprise in the form of:  “You thought Sally was a four, but the higher-ups have moved her to a three.”  This can set the manager up for a frustrating discussion with the employee, especially when the manager doesn’t agree with the change in rating.  “I put you in for a four, we all agreed to it, but someone knocked you down to a three…and I don’t know why.”

Forced curve ratings, in my thinking, are less about employee performance but more about making the numbers work against the statistical curve.

Organizations try and justify the curve with lines like, “our standards are very high, so a three here is equal to a five somewhere else.”  That sounds all fine and dandy, but in reality most employees understand the reality of this ploy.  Salary increases are tied to ratings.  If you can force most people to a curve, you play out less in salary increases. It’s that simple.  It’s a numbers game.  It’s a close race as to what frustrates me more:  the fact that it is just a ploy to pay less, or that the organizations don’t think we know it is plot against us for getting raises.  Also, if other places would rate me a five, why wouldn’t I want to go and work there?  Apparently they recognize excellence and you downgrade it.

Oh and don’t try the math explanation to justify the curve either.  I’m sure many of you have heard this. “If we give the majority of our people 4’s and 5’s then the overall raises are lower.”   If you accept that – then why present the argument about a 3 here is equal to a 5 elsewhere?  I have a Master’s degree in Human Resources – so don’t try and sway me on employee performance rating systems.  I have studied this stuff.

What Employers Have Forgotten

All of these games around bell curves and ratings overlooks one thing.  Most employees just want to be recognized for their contribution.  They want a pat on the back.  Sure a raise validates the effort they put into work – but recognition is more important.  When you tell employees that their best is only worth a mediocre rating because you use a strict system that plays mathematical games with their ratings, employees tend to get a little pissed off.  “If the work I did is exceptional, don’t diminish it by telling me that everybody is expected to be exceptional – that exceptional is the norm.  I work with these people, so don’t try that stuff with me.  If I did five work – rate me a five.”

A LOT of organizations used forced ratings against a curve and I contend that while they achieve the organization’s goals, I’m not sure they are a good way to accurately rate and evaluate employees.

As I plunge into this season I put aside my personal feelings and gird my loins for battle.  While I personally dislike the rules I am playing under, I do my best to leverage them for my people.  In terms of my own review, I’m considering selling tickets since it’s bound to be funny if history holds true.

I took the liberty of putting together a typical bell curve with ratings of 1 (time for you to pack your stuff) to 5 (god-like) and the typical employee perceptions of where they are (and what they are thinking) along the bell curve.   For those of you that hold the force curve ratings in contempt, welcome to the party.

So, how do you feel about performance reviews?  Do you dread them as much as I do?

11 thoughts on “The Dreaded Performance Review Season

  1. microraptor

    I once worked for a company that graded your performance reviews in part on things that you didn’t do in your department, thus making it literally impossible to get a perfect score.

  2. Mike L.

    I know exactly where you’re coming from. I no longer take these things seriously and t’s a very liberating feeling.

      1. Gäiten

        It is, but there is a logic behind. It is cheaper to give few people a bonus than giving many more people more money. And due motivation, just scare them they might lose their jobs.

  3. Pingback: Annual Performance Reviews – A Snarky Fix to an Age-Old Problem – Notes From The Bunker

  4. Pingback: Annual Performance Reviews – A Snarky Fix to an Age-Old Problem

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