Vol. 46, No. 3
If managers think reviews waste their time, they'll leave performance management tools on the shelf.
Giving an employee bad news during a performance review is tough enough. So why make the job any tougher by saddling managers with complicated appraisal systems?
Yet that’s often what HR and top management do—create performance management systems that make managers procrastinate, hesitate or just plain resist because they see the system as a hassle, not a tool for developing and rewarding employees.
HR consultants and researchers say managers shun performance reviews for a number of reasons: The performance evaluation process is too complicated. They see no evidence that it affects the work quality of those whose performances are being reviewed. Many managers also fear possible legal challenges if the employee ties a negative review to a missed promotion or a denied pay raise.
Those fears translate into reviews that don’t really help employees or employers, says John Grunseth, an HR consultant with Grunseth Connections in Green Bay, Wis.
To get more managerial buy-in for performance appraisals, say Grunseth and other experts, HR needs to involve managers in designing the performance system, train managers in performance management, show them why it matters to the employer and make appraisals part of managers’ own performance goals.
Why Managers Balk at Appraisals
Busy managers have little incentive to devote precious time and energy to a process they consider difficult and filled with paperwork, says David Dell, research director of The Conference Board, a business research organization in New York.
"A lot of people find that the methodology itself is cumbersome," Dell says. The Conference Board surveyed HR directors and executives and found that 90 percent of respondents felt that their performance measures and management approaches needed reform. And if HR and executives—who do fewer reviews than many managers—don’t like their performance systems, they can’t convey a positive message about performance appraisal to the managers.
Managers also may feel that they lack control over the process because higher-ups dictate the results the system should give, says Lynda Ford, SPHR, president of The Ford Group, an HR consulting firm in Lee Center, N.Y. When that happens, managers get jaded.
She recalls working in a small company where the top rating was the number five. Managers could give only one employee each year the top rating, even if more deserved it. As a result, she says, “our manager would say, ‘This year you’re a three or a four,’” meaning that next year the employee would get the five. Managers simply passed the top rating around among employees.
In cases like this one, Ford notes, “If you back people up against the wall and force them to work in a system that they do not perceive is valuable, they’ll figure out how to make it work to their advantage.”
Managers also will give reviews short shrift when the connection between reviews and rewards is weak or non-existent.
Leslie Kossoff of Kossoff Management Consulting in San Mateo, Calif., describes a client that had delays of up to two years on some of its performance evaluations, despite an expectation that managers would evaluate employees annually. Part of the problem, Kossoff found, was that managers didn’t see a real link between performance evaluations and compensation.
When organizations falsely claim that merit increases are tied to evaluations, managers will know better and won’t take those claims seriously, Kossoff says. Such a situation creates a “polite lie” because “everyone sort of treats the performance appraisal process with a wink and a nod.”
Sloppy Reviews Dent Morale
Managers may not realize that employees are aware of the winks and nods. But when reviews are slapdash, employees notice.
A graphic designer in a university setting says, “The only time they do something remotely resembling a review is when my contract is about to expire. Whoever happens to be my boss at the time makes a mad dash to throw something together that says they’re happy with my performance and recommend keeping me on. They call me into the office, they hand me the review and say, ‘Do you want to talk about anything?’” The last time she received even that semblance of a review was nearly two years ago, she says.
Similarly, a utility industry engineer jumped into a new job where, she says, “I thought I was contributing within a few weeks.” After seven months, she was eager for her year-end review, only to be told by her supervisor that all new employees received the same rating.
“I was shocked and mad,” she says. “That sure didn’t do anything for my motivation.”
How to Motivate Managers
If you want to motivate employees to improve their performance, start by motivating managers to do a thorough job on reviews. Experts say that HR departments can improve managers’ compliance with performance evaluation processes by taking these steps:
Make it meaningful.
“Part of the problem with performance appraisals,” says Kossoff, “is the HR department tends to treat it as a management task, rather than as a management process” that incorporates recruiting, hiring and training, as well as evaluation.
Rather than looking back at what the employee did or did not accomplish, Kossoff suggests that managers and employees look forward and plan what the employees should do to move ahead.
HR also needs to impress on managers the importance of the process. “From the big picture perspective, it’s probably the most important thing [managers] do,” says Ronald Riggio, Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology and director of the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “It’s unfortunate that people don’t give it enough attention.”
Whatever the performance system used, the critical element is commitment at the top of the organization, says Curt Salisbury, HR manager at Carolina International, a truck sales and rental company based in Columbia, S.C.
“Management has to believe in the process,” Salisbury says. “The boss, president, CEO or whoever needs to be in tune, obviously. If they aren’t doing it, the motivation level is low for managers to do it.”
Make everyone a player.
Salisbury adds, “Get buy-in from the management team even if it means spending a good deal of time developing a customized performance measurement format.”
“You need input from the managers themselves,” Ford says. “Too many of these systems get developed in
a vacuum with some senior leadership team and HR, and then it gets rolled out to the organization and they wonder why nobody likes it.”
Carol Booz, PHR, president of Laurel Technologies Inc., a consulting firm in Nottingham, Pa., agrees. “If you can get a couple of managers together and get them brainstorming, you’ll find out what the roadblocks are and can work with the managers to overcome them.”
Many managers complain about the complexity and length of performance evaluation forms. Through their experience in working with the forms, they may have excellent insights and suggestions on how to improve them, Booz says.
Keep it simple.
The more you can do to keep the process simple, the more likely you are to achieve compliance.
“One of the things that effective managers do for their people is remove the roadblocks” to performance, says Ford. “That’s what HR should be doing for managers when it comes to performance evaluation.”
Advance planning can help organizations simplify their performance appraisal processes. “If we haven’t pre-determined as a department or an organization what aspects of performance we’re going to look at,” says Booz, “then it’s very easy to get sidetracked and develop a form that’s five or six pages long.”
Train your managers.
While training isn’t the only solution for motivating managers, it certainly is an important part of the process. Booz notes, “If you can work with managers to help them find a system to keep track of all of the things their employees have done during the review period, they won’t view the process as much of a chore.”
Training also should incorporate the big picture. Show managers why the organization values performance appraisals, how individual performance benefits the organization and how managers can measure performance objectively.
Salisbury adds, “The best incentives for [managers] are educational and financial. HR needs to do our job and teach the managers the financial rewards of the system. Hit them with turnover costs in their department. Do some survey work and graph it out. Get some productivity reports or absenteeism reports and look for trends. Show them some numbers and follow it with the position that a performance system will add value to their margins. It’s [managers’] responsibility to give feedback for the good of the organization.”
Make it a must.
Experts agree that producing timely, effective performance evaluations should be a key component of any manager’s job. Grunseth says managers should be held accountable for doing evaluations, and notes that some companies put a specific line item in managers’ performance evaluations to rate their effectiveness at evaluating their employees.
“If you evaluate supervisors on the quality and the consistency with which they do their performance appraisals then you’re pretty sure they’ll be doing this and doing this consistently,” Riggio says. “It also communicates to them the value to the organization. This is not just extra stuff. It’s not something you do on top of your workload. It’s a core component.”
“The organization has to have a culture that encourages performance evaluation,” says Booz. “If it’s tied to a manager’s compensation in some way, there will be a better incentive to make sure that it happens.”
A manager of a small customer service information team adds that managers “should be rated on sticking to the process as well as on how often they are evaluating team members.”
“HR offers training for managing the performance evaluation process, but managers don’t apply it consistently,” says the manager, who asked not to be identified. “Some managers stick to the goal-setting process and properly score work of their team members,” she says of her workplace. “Other managers are very lax about the process. Some employees don’t have individual goals. They apparently receive a rating based on the department or business unit success. How does that show the employee that individual contributions count? There’s no real linkage.”
Dick Grote, president of Grote Consulting, a performance management consulting firm in Addison, Texas, tells of a major oil company with a “shockingly simple” performance appraisal system he says is very effective at motivating managers.
“The CEO requires every person with supervisory responsibility in the organization—and there are a lot of them—to send him a memo each year saying one of two things: ‘I conducted all of the performance conversations with my people’ or ‘I did not conduct all of the performance discussions with my people—and the reason is … ’”
That reason had better be good, Grote adds.
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of The HR Book: Human Resources Management for Business (Self-Counsel Business Series, 1999).