Much has been written over the years about the destructive effects of the traditional performance rating systems used by so many organizations. It's a process that most people do not like but nevertheless continues to be an important part of the HR systems of many organizations. In a study conducted by CEB Global (now Gartner), 21% of nearly 300 companies surveyed worldwide have dropped or are planning to drop the practice of assigning performance ratings to employees. If this is representative of business in general, it means a vast majority of companies still use ratings.
The idea of eliminating ratings has gained increased attention in recent years but many appear to be apprehensive of dropping the process because they don't know what to do instead to provide feedback to improve performance. According to the CEB Global study, though, employee performance has actually dropped in those companies that have eliminated ratings. My fear with reporting study results like this is that people – especially those who favor rating employees – will see it as proof that the process needs to continue. Upon further reading, however, it is noted that it is management practices and leadership skills that cause the problem, not the elimination of the ratings process itself.
There are many compelling reasons to eliminate performance ratings that greatly outweigh any that seem to support continuing the practice. The reasons are not new but, as long as they continue to be ignored, each significantly interferes with transformation and sustained levels of improvement. Like any process or system, we should never look at the performance rating system in isolation of organizational performance. Too many managers look at the performance review process as if it has value by itself and keep it disconnected from where the organization is going or what it is trying to accomplish.
Problems with Performance Ratings
There are several problems with assigning ratings to people that hurt, rather than help, performance. These problems have been discussed and written about for many years but, due to the continued popularity of attempting to rate individual performance, need to be revisited every now and then.
- Manager Responsibilities Ignored – Ratings put the responsibility for development completely on the team member rather than the leader, who has an obligation to provide coaching to employees. We somehow have an assumption in business that becoming a manager automatically means one can give proper and effective feedback to team members, which is not the case;
- Inconsistency – Since the ratings are assigned by people, there is a level of inconsistency that comes with human intervention in the process. Even when there is a larger calibration session consisting of a team of leaders that review the numbers and force fit ratings into a normal distribution, there is inconsistency in the ratings assigned and feedback given. Like any type of meeting, group calibration sessions tend to be dominated by the loudest and most aggressive leaders. Another problem is that many of those who participate in the sessions have little knowledge of how most of the individuals being assessed performed – or even what they do;
- Unclear Expectations – A significant problem in many organizations is the lack of clear expectations for people. There is often an attempt to assign objectives at the beginning of the year but there is an inconsistent understanding of the purpose and expected result of the objectives, and they tend to ignore the person's everyday responsibilities which can easily interfere with larger objectives.;
- Conflicting Objectives - People are generally smart enough to meet objectives or at least provide some evidence to show they did whether or not it actually helped the organization. Objectives are often assigned in a vacuum, i.e., supply chain reducing price of incoming materials, customer service increasing the number of customer calls handled, etc., and in most organizations, there is little effort to assure they are aligned and truly focused on achieving the organization's purpose.
- Lack of Systems Thinking – Most leaders fail to appreciate how much the overall system affects the performance of the organization, and that it is their responsibility to develop and maintain the system. If they did understand, they would never put so much effort on trying to "fix" the part of the organization that accounts for less than 3-4% of the company's performance. Performance ratings assign blame to people who are likely attempting to work in a flawed system, and those who receive higher ratings are often working outside of the system, something that should never be encouraged. I once worked for a CEO who gave each of us on the management team a mirror and told us whenever we had an employee who underperformed to look in the mirror to see who is truly responsible for the underperformance.
The CEB report, along with several other studies on rating systems and performance in general, point to leadership issues as the main cause of performance problems. When a new employee is hired, that person is generally enthusiastic on his or her first days with the organization. When that person starts to "underperform" or show attitude problems, though, rather than punish or threaten the person with a poor rating, we should try to figure out what has changed. In most cases, we will discover that it is the person in the mirror who is responsible for the underperformance.
It comes down to helping leaders understand that their job is to coach and develop rather than judge. Spending time clarifying this to leaders and helping them learn how to do it would be a far better use of everybody's time than assigning numbers to people.