Banking, governmental and educational institutions are certainly guilty of good intentions. Nowhere is this more evident than in employee evaluations and feedback instruments. Leadership empowers clients to provide commentary on bank tellers, loan officers, attorneys, federal professionals and university professors.
We work on the assumption that 360 degree feedback is a good thing. Why not have banking customers and university students provide detailed evaluations of customer service and the quality of instruction in the classroom? Surely this is a good thing – to turn the organization upside down and empower clients to anonymously provide detail concerning what they liked and disliked about the mortgage banker’s handling of a refinancing or the accounting professor’s approach to exams and team projects. Unfortunately, this bottom-up agenda has resulted in a new world, not-so-enlightened agenda born of the best intentions but frequently utilized as an underhanded and clever way of demeaning employees. Rather than provide positive commentary and a basis for correcting and enhancing we witness evaluation schemes that belittle, demoralize and destroy.
As a consultant to the manager of a Fortune 100 bank in the U.S., I was asked to examine what had gone wrong with the employee feedback system. In response, I spent many hours visiting and assessing a local branch of this bank and getting to know employees. Once the topic rolled around to the evaluation system a dramatic change instantly came over bank tellers, loan officers and supervisors. I repeatedly was told that the evaluations generated were at times used quite constructively and in other instances utilized by leadership as a form of harassment with one teller offering that the feedback agenda bordered on “liberal fascism from the bottom-up.”
The unanimous view among caustic banking employees was that the feedback sheets and online forms filled out by customers were used to “demean and accentuate every conceivable negative. And we don’t even have an opportunity to directly respond or discuss!”
Let me be explicit as banking employees were with me. Here’s an abbreviated list of their complaints:
1. Bank employees are not able to view the feedback/evaluation entries in their entirety, whatsoever
2. Full access to valuations is limited to management, supervisors or designated human resource specialists;
3. When supervisors set up meetings to discuss evaluations with employees the actual and full text of the feedback is only available to leadership. It is only at the discretion of the supervisor that an employee may be informed of a phrase, excerpts or quick and fleeting glimpses of client feedback.
4. When employees do ask to view their evaluations in their entirety they are denied access.
5. When employees ask whether they can respond directly to a client who has accused them of substandard service they are informed by supervisors that they has no access nor right to the ID of the client and moreover, no right of reply or direct response.
My investigation revealed that the empowerment of the customer was knowingly or unknowingly used by some supervisors “against employees” with absolutely no right of response. Employees were limited to snippets of criticism with the supervisor as gatekeeper. When employees offered that there was a misunderstanding and that they wanted to respond directly to the client in an attempt to make things right – this was viewed as a request that was outside the boundaries and scope of the established evaluation and feedback system.
Overall, even when not intended, the decentralized, empowerment of the customer to provide evaluations of employees had provided leadership with potential ammunition to demean. Employees grew increasingly distressed and cynical.
The takeaway here is surely not just to be a critic or simply disclose holes and shortcomings in current corporate evaluation systems. It is rather to provoke debate and reflect on a flawed approach. I hope to solicit saner, more balanced alternatives to flawed and skewed evaluations.
Curiously, these abuses have not been limited to banking and are also rampant in law, accounting, state and federal governmental agencies and businesses. A case in point can be found in the academic world where at a notable New England institution university students also retain anonymity when evaluating their professors. It is fairly commonplace for a departmental chair to provide the professor with only chosen snippets of anonymous criticism. A fifty one year old professor suddenly finds that dialogue, dignity and respect that she extends to students in her classroom appear to be denied to her by her chair. What really transpires? The trenches of the evaluation process reveal that a disagreement with a student over an interpretation of a case study in class snowballs into a professor being anonymously trashed in the end of course evaluation.
Even more interesting is the fact that much like the irate banking customer who solicits friends to conclusively trash a given teller – so can the innovative student fuel a vendetta and recruit five fellow students or fraternity brothers to similarly trash the professor that he felt offended by. As a result, the professor was quite upset to find that her twenty years of sterling performance were suddenly viewed as suspect due to a single disgruntled student who figured out how to play the skewed evaluation system to his liking.
Equipped with anonymity, empowerment and strength in numbers – there will be those few employees and students who revel in the power provided them to elevate or to fracture. Surely we must anticipate that clients and students may be civil, honest and quite truthful or may be conversely responding to emotional outbursts, personal prejudice and dislikes… or even the prospect of long-term psychopathology that remains privileged and confidential. Caution is required. Evaluations must be revisited and rethought.
In response, we of course cherish our freedoms and sincerely, truly, deeply want to empower banking clients and university students. Both should surely have the right to evaluate service. But at what point does leadership play dumb and look the other way – pretending not to see the holes and excesses in response to its flawed creations? Surely, the reality of perpetuating feedback that can be utilized in a demeaning and destructive fashion against employees is not what bottom-up empowerment is about.
I urge leaders to get more hands on with their evaluation and feedback instruments and to consider whether their current system is fair, balanced and ethical in its applications. Or does it lend itself at times to unethical temptations? If we place bank managers and academic leaders in the exalted position of maintaining control over client and student evaluations are we not fueling a scenario whereby a given boss can be selective, manipulative and even ruthless?
Although the original idea was to empower subordinates, customers and students - should the data generated ultimately be handed over to a boss to do with as he pleases? Suddenly the bottom- up evaluations of subordinates is subject to the top-down scrutiny, misjudgments and potential miscalculations of superiors. Unfortunately, when leaders are placed in an exalted position to interpret evaluation data and edit, delete, select, submerge and emphasize whatever they choose – major misinterpretations do result. In some cases the wrath of faulty data may come down upon the customer or student in other cases it injures bank managers and professors.
I submit that troubling evaluation and feedback protocol must be revisited and revamped. It is unacceptable that employees cannot see the totality of evaluation statements and feedback forms – particularly when the critiques are negative. Yes, there is more than meets the eye and there are layers of complexity in feedback efforts but growing aberrations and excesses demand reflection. Moreover, it is time to sober up and carefully consider whether anonymity is always the best policy. Not only should we consider whether employees have the right to a response to negative feedback – I question whether evaluation triggered dialogues (not anonymity) between bank officials and clients, and professors and students, might potentially provide a venue for further investigating, debating, critiquing and improving upon service and instruction.
In current formats some evaluation and feedback instruments are misleading, misused and contribute little to the noble cry for continuous improvement and rather provide fuel for demeaning and defeating the heart and soul of some of our finest financial and educational professionals. Action is requested on a case by case basis. Leadership may want to revisit current evaluation and feedback instruments and procedures. Precedent may no longer be acceptable.