Inviting the Masses to Rate Employee Performance

By Steve Taylor Apr 17, 2012
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Some companies are adding employee and customer comments to their performance appraisal process using Facebook-type systems. The number of companies does not appear to be large as of this writing, but the interest is there. So is awareness of related problems.

The general term for this is “crowdsourcing.” Dawn MacKay, vice president of Halogen Software in Ottawa, Ontario, defined the approach as “taking full advantage of feedback and input, both solicited and unsolicited, from as many sources as possible, to inform the assessment of an employee’s performance.”

For some organizations this works, particularly as many seek to embrace social media to attract younger workers. “It’s the way they talk to their friends, live their lives,” observed Dyke Debrie, product marketing director for the HR services firm Kenexa in Lincoln, Neb.

Yet so far there is little evidence that many employers are actively using this strategy. Most vendors of crowdsourcing systems decline to provide client contacts, but Derek Irvine, vice president of Globoforce, an employee recognition firm in Southborough, Mass., said “We have many clients using this approach,” and Debrie said, “Where we’re seeing a lot of the interest is in mid- to large-market customers.”

There’s interest in municipal HR, too. “This type of crowdsourcing is basically letting government be transparent,” said Teresa Laffon, SPHR, who is HR director for the city of Newton, N.C. Newton designed a crowdsourcing tool with the help of consultant Stan Smith of Hirease Inc., in Southern Pines, N.C. “You can really utilize it,” Laffon said. “I love it.”

Interest in crowdsourcing comes amid dissatisfaction with older methods of appraising employee performance.

“Classic performance evaluation has achieved the status of being disliked by almost everyone—managers and employees,” said Irvine. Fewer than half of HR professionals who responded to a 2011 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)/Globoforce survey said managers and supervisors are effective in recognizing and appreciating employee contributions. And a 2009 survey from talent management consultant Oracle Taleo found that four out of five U.S. workers are unhappy with their performance reviews.

Crowdsourcing Benefits

“It’s convenient,” said Andrew Schrage, co-founder and human resource director of the money management website Money Crashers. “It provides a diverse set of opinions [that] you wouldn't see if an employee were reviewed in a more traditional fashion … by their direct supervisor.”

“It is shortsighted to think that a manager knows everything an employee has done with other teams and the impact that the employee has made,” noted Mike Ryan, vice president of Madison Performance Group in New York City. “Crowdsourcing provides managers that additional insight and perspective.”

Crowdsourcing vs. 360-Degree Appraisals

“All this is a different means of getting the same information we’d get through a 360 feedback,”said performance management consultant and author Dick Grote. But others say crowdsourcing is unlike a 360-degree performance appraisal in significant ways. “360 is a single point in timeand is typically structured around a competency model,” explained Scott Erker, senior vice president of DDI, a talent management consultancy in Bridgeville, Pa. “People answer questions only in that structure. It’s a process that sits in a box.” Crowdsourcing, on the other hand, “is always on, every day, and it lacks structure. It’s going to be much more organic.”

Erker said the social media approach also provides more raters and easier access to them. “The ‘crowd’ includes peers, subordinates and the boss, but also customers,” he observed. “Instead of putting out a big survey, I can just send a message to somebody and say, ‘Give me a little bit of feedback after the meeting.’ ”

Internal Vs. External Data Collection

Gathered feedback via outside social networking websites, such as Facebook, is not recommended, experts say. Debrie said his “customers are already uncomfortable just because it has that social name next to it.”

Jamie Resker, founder of Employee Performance Solutions in Boston, expressed concerns about “the bullying that's happened on Facebook and through [other] social media that has had young people taking their lives.”

“There are many sites like glassdoor.com where individuals can write whatever they wish,” warned executive management coach Lisa Chenofsky Singer in Millburn, N.J. “It is more typical that the anonymous person is complaining rather than praising.”

“The big pushback comes from legal [departments],” said Ryan, “with concerns about employees speaking in an open forum.” Ryan said a dedicated, internal website is preferable. “The key is for organizations to establish these communities ‘behind the firewall’ where they can emulate social networking features of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter but in a secure environment,” he added.

Weighing the Feedback of the Crowd

HR professionals know that some workers will do all they can to rate themselves highly by gaming the system. “If I give you a bunch of great feedback, you give it back to me and then we’ll both do great on our performance review,” is MacKay’s example.

As for negative feedback, Resker, said, “Even comments that are intended to be constructive criticism are always criticism from the receiver's perspective” and could be communicated and perceived the wrong way.

For these reasons, Schrage said, companies should not place too much emphasis on crowdsourced feedback, especially compared to tangible measures of performance such as sales goals and productivity. “A weight of 10 percent of the overall review would be an optimal place to start,” he said.

MacKay said crowdsourced feedback “is more valuable in how it informs the manager or evaluator and not how it converts into a number or weighting on the performance review.”

‘Under the Bus’ Behavior

Irvine said “it’s hard to see the downside” to crowdsourcing … because it’s tremendously important to give employees a voice.”

But Resker asked, “What about individuals who have it in for a co-worker, boss or internal customer? There's so much of the ‘throwing people under the bus’ and passive aggressive behavior that I'd worry this would be another venue to vent [or] seek revenge.”

Irvine dismissed that concern: “It’s the same as inappropriate comments in an e-mail [or] team meeting. …There are HR processes for people who don’t act with integrity.”

Resker wondered about HR departments that have no experience with this kind of feedback: “I'm doubtful that organizations are going to invest in training leaders at all levels [as well as] individual contributors.”

Pay Raises and Bonuses

When asked whether Newton, N.C., uses crowdsourcing on decisions about employee raises, Laffon said, “We would have, before the economy spiraled down.”

Debrie reported, however, that his clients tend to struggle with that issue, and Resker said, “My sense is that crowdsourcing performance review information [for] promotional, salary and other employment decisions will have people on edge and paranoid” as they speculate about who said what. Added Singer, bluntly, “More discussion needed.”

Crowdsourcing feedback can result in unfortunate diversity-related implications as well.

“Popular, friendly, good-looking, outgoing people—let’s face it—they [already] tend to get the better jobs and more pay,” said MacKay. Linking compensation to crowdsourcing could exaggerate that problem. “People who are equally valuable contributors but who are quieter [and] more reserved wouldn’t be the people getting the popularity marks,” MacKay suggested. “People who are being disqualified for such reasons are not going to stay. We want to keep everyone engaged, not just those who are sociable.”

“To tie performance evaluation to compensation, I think that’s a big step,” said Erker. “I would rather create a crowdsourcing, social-media-driven tool for development, open and honest feedback and innovation. When you tie pay to those three things, you have problems.”

Steve Taylor, a Washington reporter for Fox News Radio, is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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