Let's Trash Employee Performance Reviews

Is the venerable periodic employee performance review really a useful management tool? Management sciences guru Sam Culbert doesn’t think so. “I see nothing constructive about an annual pay and performance review,” he said in a Wall Street Journal article last year. Performance reviews, he said, are “bogus.”

Negative Reviews

Culbert, professor of management at the University of California at Los Angeles, says, “To my way of thinking, a one-side-accountable, boss-administered review is little more than a dysfunctional pretense. It’s a negative to corporate performance, an obstacle to straight-talk relationships, and a prime cause of low morale at work. Even the mere knowledge that such an event will take place damages daily communications and teamwork.”

A long-time, mid-level worker in an energy consulting firm told MANAGING POWER recently, “I went in for my annual performance review a month ago. It went well, and I thought I got a pretty good review. When it was over, my supervisor said, ‘By the way, we’re letting you go.’ I was gob-smacked, and I never did get a straight answer why they fired me.”

That’s confirmation of Culbert’s view of performance reviews, discussed in detail in his recent book, Beyond Bullsh*t, Straight Talk at Work (Stanford University Press). While the purported purpose of performance reviews, he says, is to instruct subordinates in how to perform better, “I see it as intimidation aimed at preserving the boss’s authority and power advantage. Such intimidation is unnecessary, though: the boss has the power with or without the performance review.”

More Bovine Excrement

Performance reviews are part of what Culbert calls, descriptively, “bullsh*t,” and bullsh*t, he says, “has become the etiquette of choice in corporate communications.” The standard evaluation processes, says Culbert in his book are “rife with bullsh*t, impede straight-talk and teamwork between bosses and their direct reports.”

An earlier Culbert book, Don’t Kill the Bosses! examines why subordinates get slaughtered when bosses frequently get fat. The book, writes Culbert, “questions the practice of dismissing subordinates while allowing the bosses, who hired those subordinates and who are responsible for deploying, guiding, and overseeing them, to distance themselves from the train wrecks.”

Performance reviews, Culbert says in his Wall Street Journal essay, “Get Rid of the Performance Review!,” inherently put the supervisor and the employee against each other, with the supervisor stressing the need for improved performance and the employee making a case for better pay and advancement. “At best,” he writes, “the discussion accomplishes nothing. More likely, it creates tensions that carry over to their everyday relationships.”

Culbert argues that the performance review is “immoral” when management erects a façade that reviews lead to corporate improvement, “when it’s clear they lead to more bogus activities than valid ones. Instead of energizing individuals, they are dispiriting and create cynicism.”

What should a worker do after receiving a bad evaluation? In a podcast, Culbert says, “Arguing won’t get you anywhere.” If you balk and argue, the review “becomes a political event,” which won’t work for the employee. The employee, he says, “needs to get back to the boss now that all the lights on stage are off” and communicate fully. The key question is, “Can you enlist the boss as your teammate?” If that doesn’t work, “The background music is ‘Hit the Road, Jack.’ It’s time to look for a transfer elsewhere in the company or a new job somewhere else.”

Review This Idea

Now that you’ve heard Culbert’s perspective, what do you think of it as a manager? As an employee? Let the MANAGING POWER community know: Share your experience and advice by using the Comments button at the bottom of this story.

—Kennedy Maize is executive editor for MANAGING POWER.

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