Employee performance reviews

Employee performance reviews are a much debated HR invention (Joel does not like them). I started the yearly round performance review sessions for the development team @ Mirabeau, about 30 in total. An opportunity to once again think about the use and possible pitfalls of reviews.

There is a risk that reviews do more harm than good. As reviewer I want to be aware of the risks and act accordingly. Reviews ideally should reinforce what is going well and should provide a basis for improvement in areas that could use improvement. The first risk that materializes is that reviews are coupled with consequences in pay. My company (Mirabeau) is no exception. So there is an element of reward or punishment in everything that is said during a performance review. Anticipation about consequences in pay make people defensive and is not a fertile ground to talk openly about weaknesses and what to do about.

The second and even bigger problem is that I find it very hard to realiably recognize what is going well and what could improve for each individual. I have ears and eyes and interact with colleagues, so I am able to form an opinion on how somebody functions. On top of that I hear things from peers, managers and customers. But every time I hear something or conclude something I must be aware that it is very hard to determine the quality of that information.

This contrasts with the desire to give clear and accurate feedback. It depends on dialogue skills to present feedback in a constructive and non offensive manner. And leave room for intepretation and disagreement about what is said. I have my conclusions about how somebody functions, and these conclusions are mine and mine alone. That is the way I want to share them. It is up to the person to agree and do something with it or to disagree. Both outcomes are ok.

Doing performance reviews well is a challenging task. But it is well worth the effort. A performance review done well can have an huge positive impact. Doing it badly has equally bad results. Unfortenately there seems to be no middle way, you always end up on having a good or bad outcome.

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