Just like résumé tips, interview questions, and social media, performance evaluations is a topic staffers love to talk about and rag on. But it wasn’t until I read Halogen Software’s recent blogpost that I decided it was high time for me to weigh in.

I’m not going to give you tips, nor am I going to rip on it. (You can read those things a thousand other places.) What I’m gonna do is just talk about my experience with performance reviews.

Some of my previous employers had the typical performance review process. Prompted by the HR department, the supervisor sat me down in an office once a year to go through a checklist, told me how I should improve and what my goals should be, and then gave a standard 3% raise. There was little-to-no opportunity for me to speak, let alone contest their assessment or provide my own feedback.

In short, it was awkward and wasn’t valuable for anyone involved. (And these are the kinds of standard reviews that I read people bitching about daily.)

But, alas, there is hope. I know this because I actually had one employer that did this “the right way” (if there is such a thing). There wasn’t a method to their approach, nor did they even call them “performance reviews.” It was just a natural conversation between two people. It wasn’t awkward, nor was it a top-down “so decrees the king” kind of evaluation like I’d had before. Here’s what they did well:

It Was a Two-Way Conversation
Half of the purpose of this annual meeting – just the employee and the boss, no HR rep overlooking the proceedings – was for him to review my performance and what that translates to in terms of a raise. The other half was for me to review his performance and the direction of the business as a whole.

I don’t care what business you’re in, if your employees truly take pride in what they do and care about the goals/missions of the company, they’ll have strong opinions about how it’s run and where it’s going. If they don’t, they either don’t care about their job, don’t care about your company, or are lying to avoid conflict.

The Tone Was Casual
When you’re talking about this kind of serious stuff, the atmosphere is key. So rather than doing this in my boss’ office (which would feel like a principal scolding a misbehaving student), they let me pick a restaurant and we’d go for a lunch meeting (and they’d foot the bill). This meant that the tone was casual and non-confrontational, plus instantly showed me that the boss cared about my personal comfort and preference.

No Checklists; Just Opinions
A lot of performance review “experts” like to talk about their rubric for measuring performance. I’ve worked for people who had em – vague checklists with items like attendance, goals/objectives, job-related training, teamwork, etc. – and while maybe they weren’t a great example for best practices, I just can’t picture a scenario where an employee’s performance isn’t judged subjectively.

No matter how you slice it, that employee is being judged by someone else. Sure, that judgment may be based on some facts (sales numbers, attendance, etc.), but don’t fool yourself – it’s also some opinion. I think the lamest part of the whole rubric/checklist tactic is that it operates under the thin guise of objectivity, with a thick sheet of subjectivity right over the top.

This particular employer brought that subjectivity right out into the open. In an effort to “balance” his assessment of how I did, he’d occasionally ask others around the office how they think I’d done in different aspects of my job. (That way, he could either back up his findings or realize his folly.) But ultimately it was just his take, which was fine, because he came right out and said that.

While this could sound like an awkward personal attack because there wasn’t an HR rep buffer between us, the boss would offer his input forth and then end with something like: “That’s just my take; what do you think?” Basically he tried to eliminate my gut reaction of getting defensive, and wanted to hear not only my honest assessment of how I’d done, but also the possible reasons why. And that’s where we’d get into areas of how he (or the company) could improve.

This is often where we’d butt heads, and it was the most difficult part of the conversation. But often it’s the most difficult conversations that are also the most important ones to have. His attitude during this part was wide-eyed and excited, rather than hurt and defensive. He truly enjoyed the constructive feedback, and without that accepting attitude I never would have given it. With that respectful and inviting approach, no one ever came out of these meetings with battle wounds.

Get Personal & Lasting*
Another purpose of these meetings was to delve into the goings-on in employees’ personal lives (significant other, kids, home, etc.). We could talk about work life forever, but without knowledge of my personal life he’d only know one piece of the pie. If I’m not content at work, I’m not content at home. And vice-versa.

Ideally these kinds of conversations wouldn’t be something we have to schedule for once a year, but occur naturally and on a regular basis.

The consensus I’ve gathered from all the articles I’ve read about performance reviews is as such: “We hate them and think they’re ineffective, but we know employees like feedback and raises so we do them.”

It’s probably because of that "we-do-them-because-we-have-to" attitude that people hate performance reviews. Design them until bosses and employees enjoy them or you might as well not do them at all – simple as that. (But if you do choose not to do them, just know that there’s a lot of well-known information about how the business runs and how the employees work that isn’t being communicated when it should be.)


* Looking at this header after the fact, it reads like a tagline for a condom company. I apologize for that.

Tags: Business, Performance reviews, Halogen Software