Your boss is busy, but it's time again, the personnel people say, for him to talk to you about how you've been doing your job for the past year.
He finds a quick minute in the day's rush and calls you in. You're perplexed. "What does he want now?"
"You've been doing great," he tells you, and your face brightens. He begins reading from a company check list, marking it as he speaks: "Punctuality, good. Initiative, good. Attitude, good."
"But there's one thing here," he continues, "that I've been meaning to tell you about."
The smile fades.
"You've been a little slow in finishing up those projects I've given you. I'm going to have to mark 'Needs Improvement.'"
Your face flushes.
"I've been working twice as hard as anyone in this office," you blurt, and your meeting with the boss ends in an argument. Or you keep your mouth shut, but continue fuming quietly inside for weeks afterward about "how unappreciated I am around here."
You've just gone through your annual job performance review, and you blew it. That's not something you dismiss easily, since pay raises, your promotion, your whole future with the company, may depend on what boxes your boss has checked.
Another possibility: Your boss summons you in for a quick pat on the back. That's congenial, but it doesn't tell you much about what's expected of you in the upcoming year. You wonder if your boss cares.
It may be some consolation -- if either is the kind of evaluation you get -- that experts in management techniques consider them often ineffective. "A farce, a paper exercise," charges one authority. No one gains much from them -- not the employe, not his or her manager, not the company itself.
Across the country, however, business firms large and small are rethinking their personnel-appraisal policies, incorporating studies of behavioral scientists. And the federal government is winding up a massive three-year project to revamp the way it evaluates its thousands of civilian employes.
Management's goal: improved worker performance and increased productivity. A fallout benefit for the employe: greater on-the-job satisfaction.
A good appraisal system "is fairly fundamental to improving performance," says former Harvard Business School professor Sterling Livingston, who heads Sterling Institute, a Washington management consulting firm.
"If a person doesn't know what's expected of him. If he or she doesn't get feedback, you're not likely to have the person doing well."
The federal bureaucracy agrees. Priscilla Levinson, section chief for the Office of Personnel Management's Workforce Effectiveness and Development Group, calls performance appraisal a "management tool" that "serves so many different purposes that it is difficult to imagine modern personnel management existing without it." Her section is guiding 90 government agencies in revising evaluation techniques.
Court decisions and social concerns, she says, also have spurred the need for improved appraisal systems that include well-documented performance ratings.
As for the worker, "Employes who look upon performance review as something akin to having a wisdom tooth pulled," write Ann McKay Thompson and Marcia Donnan Wood in "Management Strategies for Women," are missing a very important boat. Those who use the process to their advantage are the ones on their way up."
But, says Levinson, the evaluation process is "sometimes misused and abused," which is not surprising since "it also involves the inexact process of one human being assessing the work accomplishment of another."
Among the complaints:
Employes may see themselves being rated only on a boss' "whim and caprice." Even if that's not real, says Levinson, "the fact that it is perceived to occur can be disruptive and damaging."
Workers sometimes are judged by standards that have no relationship to their job. The same form may be used for the whole staff, from custodian to executive. It's unfair, says Levinson, to rate a computer operator "who spends most of the day at the keyboard" on her ability "to get along with the public. It's not a job-related factor."
Supervisors grumble that it's "pointless paper work," resenting the time it takes. Some are reluctant to face the admittedly hard task of giving a negative report.
Subordinates, on the other hand, may feel "very little time and effort" is spent on such an important aspect of their lives, often, says Levinson, "no more than one hour once a year per employe."
Evaluations can be "threatening" to employes, says Sterling vice president Kevin O'Sullivan, if they're simply a "report card" on how you've performed in the past 12 months. "As soon as they sound like a parent-child relationship, you're doomed."
And they stand a good chance of being "superficial," says Livingston. "It's easier to give a pat on the back then an evaluation."
"Despite the emphasis in recent years on performance evaluation," adds the Work in America Institute, "a survey of 360 managers in 190 organizations reveals that more than two-thirds of this group have no idea what their standing is in their organization."
These managers, according to a report cited by the institute, "also feel that their accomplishments are not recognized and that their organizations do not have enough data to make sound decisions about compensation, promotions and other matters that require evaluative information."
"Most everyone in industry," says Livingston, "has recognized the desirability" of performance appraisals, "but very few are terribly happy with their system. They don't achieve their objectives."
When University Research Corporation, a Bethesda human-services consulting firm, surveyed its staff a few years ago, it heard a lot of these same complaints. Because employes felt the appraisal procedure was "arbitrary and capricious," says president Gary Jonas, "we made it a high priority to come up with a new system."
After extensive research, the firm developed a plan aimed at meeting these criticisms. It incorporates much of the new thinking that is going into new government and industry programs.
A basic feature is that the burden is put first on the employes. They write an initial self-assessment in which they judge themselves -- in detail -- against expectations established in advance for their particular tasks.
"We found," says Jonas, in determining job responsibilities, "the staff usually knows the subtleties better."
To make the appraisal a useful tool in upgrading productivity, supervisors are instructed to suggest ways employes might improve their effectiveness. In a turnabout, the subordinates then let their bosses know what help they need from them to do a better job. In a final segment, employe career objectives -- "where they want to go" -- are reviewed.
Underlying the plan is an effort to increase worker-boss communication, getting them to talk over problems and goals regularly. Says Jonas: It's part of effective management. Talking about performance is difficult. But once the groundwork is laid, it becomes easier to do on a day-to-day basis."
With that kind of contact, he says, employes should know where they stand with their bosses throughout the year. The review, then, will contain no unwelcome surprises.
Along the way, the firm accentuates the positive. A manager cites a subordinate's contributions before tackling areas needing improvement. "No matter how professional, how intelligent, how well-published" a staffer is, says Jonas, "they like to get positive feedback."
The firm's annual reviews can be time-consuming, each taking from two to six or more hours including paperwork and face-to-face meetings. But Jonas believes the effort is worth it:
Ideally, he says, "A manager should spend one-third of his time on personnel matters. Probably very few take that amount of time. But those who do get more productivity. Performance appraisal is always going to be a lengthy process. You just can't check seven boxes."
To make it all work, says Myrna Seidman, director of research and evaluation, "as a supervisor I have to indicate the process is important to me."
The end result:
"People are most productive and satisfied," she says, "when they know how their supervisors regard their performance. When people are clear about these things, they can work with greater focus. If it's people who makes this organization run, then it's a good investment."
In the federal bureaucracy, "We're trying," says Levinson, "to give each agency the freedom to develop its own system" within certain guidelines that include "equity" and "fairness." At the same time, "each employe is encouraged to participate in setting up their own performance plan" -- the standards by which they are to be evaluated.
To Levinson, a performance review has merit when it is "tailored" to the "occupation, the mission and the people involved." The whole process is scheduled to go into effect Oct. 1.
Sterling Institute, which has trained managers to rate their employes in such firms as General Telephone and Electronics and Home Box Office, also puts much of the appraisal burden on employes. In its model, staff members are urged to identify areas where they think they need to improve.
"The only way anyone will change is when they choose to," says O'Sullivan. "Getting that person to change has to be self-directed."
Employe: "I think I could improve my planning and organizational work."
Boss: "I'm glad you recognize that."
"That's different," says Levingston, "from the boss saying, 'You do a lousy job of organizing.' If I talk about your weaknesses, you get defensive. We avoid that."
At this point the boss offers some coaching. "We've discovered in surveys, the manager who gives you general praise but doesn't give you suggestions to improve is seen as weak and inadequate."
If done right, says Livingston, employes look forward to an annual review. "They complain if they don't get feedback and help. The higher the level of education, the more expectation of feedback.
"Most people want to talk about themselves."