Is it time to kill performance reviews?

SYLVIA PENNINGTON
Last updated 11:21 30/06/2014

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Ever had that sinking feeling when the email to schedule your performance review drops into your inbox?

For many employees, receiving the annual or bi-annual performance review is on par with tooth extraction, without the pain relief. Managers who enjoy handing them out are also in short supply.

Badly-run reviews can leave employees scratching their heads about what they're meant to be doing, and even drive good workers into the arms of rival firms, warns the CEO of Australian recruitment firm Peoplebank, Peter Acheson.

Given the fall-out potential and the fear and loathing engendered by the process, is it time for organisations to consider killing them off or radically overhauling the way they're done?

Yes, and the sooner the better, says behavioural scientist Darren Hill, co-founder of behaviour and motivation strategy consultancy Pragmatic Thinking.

LOOK FORWARD, NOT BACKWARDS

Companies should replace them with 'performance previews' - meetings in which the post-mortem accounts for 10 per cent of the conversation, and discussion about the forthcoming six months or year forms the remaining 90 per cent, Hill says.

In addition to being tedious and time-consuming, performance reviews - as most organisations currently conduct them - are damaging and counter-productive, he believes.

"Both employee and employer say they want to stab themselves in the eye with a pen," Hill says.

"Why are we putting people through things that there's a really bad energy for?"

FREQUENT AND IMMEDIATE FEEDBACK

Viewing the annual session as the main occasion at which to dispense bouquets and brickbats stifles the development of the continuous feedback culture that's needed to achieve genuine performance improvement in staff.

"Frequency is your best friend when it comes to feedback," Hill says.

"Immediacy is really important. If you've done something great ... you shouldn't be told three months down the track - you should be told then."

Conversely, negative feedback loses its impact if it comes in an annual review long after the event. It's likely to be construed as a personal attack, rather than objective commentary about past conduct or performance.

"If someone is going to get a kick in the backside, they've either been stressing or it comes as a complete surprise - either way, it's a waste of time," Hill says.

"[A review] tends to be like a school report card - people are either really proud, or try to hide it. Either way, the report card doesn't tend to have an impact on future performance."

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RECENT FAILURE TRUMPS PAST TRIUMPH

And unfortunately for workers, what's known as the 'recency effect' can mean last week's off day or overdue report receives more scrutiny than the previous five months of sterling slog and overtime.

Hill's views resonate with Rod Bishop who has dispensed with annual reviews in favour of quarterly meetings with staff at his start-up venture, Jayride. The business is an online marketplace for people looking for shared transport and employs 10 people.

Performance targets are also discussed at monthly meetings and salary reviews conducted on an ad hoc basis as workers' job descriptions or duties evolve.

"For a fast-moving company, an annual review will always be too slow," Bishop says.

"That's very typical of an online growth business."

TURN UP, TUNE OUT

For many managers in traditional companies, the review process has devolved into a going-through-the-motions exercise that consumes weeks of the working year, career development consultant Dr Edwin Trevor-Roberts says.

It works well for roles in an industrial society "where each person's job is clearly defined", but less so for the white collar masses whose efforts can't be reduced so simply to numbers in a spreadsheet.

Companies would be better served making the meeting a "development conversation" - "asking people what we have to do to keep you for another year", Trevor-Roberts says.

"A review should be about a pact with the individual about what development opportunities they will be given and opportunities to do the best possible work."

THE 360-DEGREE METHOD

Employers who genuinely want to help employees lift their game should consider the 360-degree feedback process, Workplace Research Associates principal Dr Julie West says.

Under this method, an external person collects feedback on each worker's strengths and weaknesses from multiple sources, including colleagues, subordinates and, in some cases, customers and suppliers.

"People get a lot out of these - they're not threatening," West says.

What has been your experience of performance reviews? Should they be abolished, or how can the process be improved?

- Sydney Morning Herald

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