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Op/ed: Ten reasons to scrap employee performance reviews


By Samuel Culbert on March 1, 2013

Employee performance reviews are often used by companies as a proxy for managing workers. But there are at least 10 very good reasons to get rid of them. Here’s a countdown of the best reasons to scrap the practice:

10)  Everybody hates giving them and getting them. Do you know anybody who actually enjoys being on either end of a review? (That’s a rhetorical question.) Those who give them find it torture to have to fill out the ridiculous one-size-fits-all forms.

And those getting them? Most of them would rather do, well, do just about anything than have to smile and nod for that half hour.

9) They’re not objective. Yes, I know, the boss and the company have to pretend that they are objective. They have a number, after all. Well, movie reviewers put numbers on their reviews, too.
Unless you have a boss who is able to put all of her biases or agendas or human-ness aside, then the review will be subjective. Want proof? Studies show that the best way for an employee to get a different review is to switch bosses. Now, why would that be?

8) They prevent employee improvement. Think about it: What employee is going to reveal any weakness if he knows the admission will come back to bite him in the next review? Instead, the employee is going to spit back exactly what he knows the boss wants to hear. That’s hardly the way to get an employee to seek help on sharpening any skills that might be lacking.

7) They destroy teamwork. If you know that your boss has to grade his department on a curve, with only a limited number of the staff getting top grades, are you going to go out of your way to help your colleagues, knowing their gain may be your loss? Not likely.

6) They keep employees from offering smart ideas. The best ideas come from the people on the front lines. Those are the people who deal with customers, with suppliers, with the day-to-day bureaucratic hassles that plague, and hold back, every company.

But the performance review — by decreeing that the boss is the only person who knows best — ensures that employees work for the boss, not the company. So the price of speaking truth to power is that they are labeled “trouble-makers,” “non-team players,” or just plain annoying on their performance review. Better not to say anything and just keep pretending the boss’s way is the only way — as stupid as that way may be for the bottom line.

5) They don’t help with lawsuits. They hurt. The inherent dishonesty of reviews — the different reviews by different managers, the disconnect between reviews and objective measures that often occurs — is what every plaintiff’s attorney yearns for. Show me a paper trail, and I’ll show you the path to a successful lawsuit.

4) They distort discussions about pay. The performance review is the story that managers need to make up to justify pay decisions that have already been made. Raises are determined by how the company and the economy are doing. Once budgets and pay are determined, the performance review is just a short step behind. Much better to be upfront and tell employees how the raise was arrived at, rather than pretend it was based on individual performance.

3) “Improvements” to the review only do more damage. HR departments say the problems aren’t the reviews but the managers who poorly implement them. So they are forever tweaking them. But a cake made with sour milk won’t taste any better, no matter how beautifully made. Take the 360-degree feedback “innovation,” where employees get anonymous reviews from people they work with, for, and above. It must be objective, the argument goes, because it’s anonymous. So is hate mail. Anonymity only makes it easier for people to push opinions that reflect their own biases and agendas.

2) There’s a better way. I call them “performance previews” and they replace the one-sided, boss-knows-all performance review with a two-sided, straight-talking relationship where the focus is on results, not on placing blame. Done right, previews promise everybody the chance to be the best they can be. And they offer the possibility that everybody can win: the employee, the boss and the company.

1) And the No. 1 reason to get rid of performance reviews: They’re just plain stupid. There isn’t a scintilla of evidence that performance reviews do a company, or an employee, any good at all. Why don’t corporate executives put a stop to this destructive, intimidating practice, a practice that instills fear in employees and prevents open communication in the workplace? I wish I knew. I’d like to think CEOs and boards aren’t as stupid as this ubiquitous practice. But honestly, I’m beginning to have my doubts.

• Samuel Culbert is a professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and has been an  advisor to a number of companies in the Tri-Counties. He is an author of “Get Rid of the Performance Review! How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing — and Focus on What Really Matters.”