Work Matters

Straight Talk and Solid Evidence About Organizational Life

When Do Performance Evaluations Actually Help People and Organizations?

Are employee performance evaluations always useless, or even worse?

A couple years back, I wondered aloud here if performance evaluations ought to be eliminated.   This theme has been taken-up with a vengeance by Sam Culbert in his Wall Street Journal article and now his book Get Rid of the Performance Review.  I was thinking about this topic again because Tara Parker-Pope raised the question earlier this week in her New York Times blog post on Time to Review Workplace Reviews?  

Tara mentions Sam's book and suggests that bad performance reviews may be so distressing that they can damage physical and mental health, as well as productivity.   I am only person mentioned in the article who comes close to defending reviews, but am quoted as saying:  “In the typical case, it’s done so badly it’s better not to do it at all.”  I guess I still agree with my quote, but while I think that most performance reviews suck, there are a least a couple companies out there that do them effectively, so perhaps it is going too far to say they should all be eliminated.

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One company  that I know pretty well (sorry, I can't use the name) does such a good job of using reviews for both developmental and evaluation purposes, that most people I know who work there report the system is remarkably fair and that it has helped them improve their weak spots (the main complaint is how much effort it takes, but most employees report it is worth the trouble).  And perhaps the ultimate test is that even the people who get negative reviews there and are encouraged to leave the place generally report that it is an excellent and well-managed process.  Now, this company might be as rare as hen's teeth.  And even in this exemplary company, I have met a few people who complain about the system.

Yet this and other exceptions raise interesting questions about lessons that we might learn from such "positive outliers," as they call them in medical research and elsewhere:

1.  Have you been part of a performance evaluation system that actually works?

2. If so, why did it work? 

I would be most curious to hear some success stories, given all the failure stories I hear (just look at the 150 or so comments following Tara's post... most are pretty negative...although I am intrigued by the person who reports that being in a place with no performance reviews is even more stressful because people never know where they stand).

P.S. I also wanted to thank Tara for raising the additional issue of how distressing a bad boss can be and giving a nice plug to my new book Good Boss, Bad Boss at the end of the post.  I am delighted to have a book that The New York Times will actually mention by name, unlike The No Asshole Rule (even though they accepted this advertisement, they called it The No ******* Rule on their bestseller list, and in most stories, they simply say that I wrote a book on bullying and don't list any name). 

Bob Sutton is an organizational psychologist, Stanford professor, and author of five books including bestseller The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss (September, 2010).

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