Meanwhile, in workplaces that have moved from command-and-control hierarchies to ones that value teamwork, collaboration and matrix-style management, performance edicts from on high are a terrible fit. “They’re designed as though they’re Russia in the ‘60s,” says management adviser Marcus Buckingham. The traditional review, which comes entirely from the people who manage you but likely know less about your skills than those who work with you day to day, is “totally out of date.”
That’s especially the case for workers of a younger generation, who have come to expect immediate feedback in nearly every other aspect of their lives. “They put something on Instagram, and in 15 to 20 seconds they’re expecting to know if it’s any good or not,” Buckingham says. “So it’s crazy for them to come into a workplace that’s like, ‘We don’t care about you, and twice a year we’re going to tell you what the company wants.’”
So why then, pray tell, do we still do performance reviews? Why must we continue to have these awkward conversations, in which both sides try to recall what employees accomplished nearly 12 months ago and to make excuses for broaching uncomfortable subjects? Why must we pigeonhole people’s performance into numerical ratings and fill out reams of paperwork or irritating software programs for a process that just leaves everyone deflated?
One answer is we always have. An “imperial rater” was apparently used as far back as the Wei Dynasty in third-century China to make performance evaluations of people at the imperial court. The Navy used performance ratings during the Civil War, says Kevin Murphy, a consultant who has studied performance reviews. “These are large-scale, complex systems for making people unhappy,” he says. “They’re not a new problem.” By the time the 1980s rolled around and General Electric’s Jack Welch fueled the rank-and-yank craze, in which companies rank-ordered employees and culled the bottom 10 percent, it was hard to imagine a world without them.
Another reason is the notion that company lawyers require them. Garry Mathiason, chairman of the global employment law firm Littler Mendelson, says that while it’s preferable to have a system that reviews employee performance, “if there’s grade inflation and not very good communication, then not having them is probably a plus.” While it’s unlikely to happen, “there’s a huge debate in our field about doing away with them.”
After all, the paper trail many companies rely on to support their personnel decisions frequently happens not as part of the regular review process, but after a company has already decided they’d like to manage someone out. “I have had countless situations that go like this,” Mathiason says. “I get a phone call from a client saying an employee’s work is intolerable, and they need to take immediate action. But then I get the evaluation file and it says ‘meets expectations.’ ” As a result, the managers are counseled to put off the decision for six months to a year until a paper trail can be made.