Another take on the dreaded, outdated performance review!

Ah, the performance review. Please allow me to add my two cents to this topic. It’s been well documented that performance reviews are rife with deficiencies. Too often, they are used to place blame. Objective criteria becomes subjective. Rating scales save time, but don’t gauge performance OR identify areas for improvement. The process itself is dreaded by the person being reviewed as much as it is by reviewer, who stalls. Or forgets. Or reschedules.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the performance review was developed for industrial based organizations, and our economy has shifted towards knowledge-based work, as Robert Bacall suggests. I don’t think that means we need to do away with performance reviews altogether though. But is there room for improvement? Absolutely. Here are some strategies that will make your next performance review a meaningful, useful one.

Use it, don’t abuse it.  Looking back, in order to drive performance, forward isn’t a science, and it’s barely an art. That said, past performance is what it is – a record of what an employee’s work has been. Past performance should be used to answer three key questions: 1) What is so-and-so good at? 2) What is so-and-so NOT so good at? 3) What can we do to minimize or eliminate the issues found in question two altogether WITHOUT disrupting the positives found in question one? Keep in mind that any corrective action resulting from this line of questioning can’t be punitive if it’s going to work. (Besides, having parents that would name a child so-and-so is punishment enough!)

Collaboration x Corrective Action = Satisfaction.  Corrective action can include anything from tweaking the balance of one’s workload, like lessening creative work and adding administrative work for instance, to training in order to strengthen weak areas, to mentoring with others in the organization that have ‘been there.’ The reviewing manager and those being reviewed have to share the task; targets have to be achievable, and there has to be a realistic plan for achievement by the end of the review. If a solution from such a collaborative effort makes employees shine, their confidence (and performance) increases, and guess who wins? The organization, the manager, AND the employee.

Be objective.  This is easier said than done, and the lack of objectivity is perhaps the biggest challenge to the integrity of the performance review. Still, we are dealing with a very human, and therefore subjective topic. It’s one of those instances where we have to recognize the flaws in the process in order to check ourselves and stick to criteria. The review process has to be objective in spirit, even if it spills into subjective areas, as it inevitably will. That said, objective criteria means different things for different occupational groups, which leads us to the next point…

One size does NOT fit all.  The HR tendency towards uniformity can also be problematic. How do you measure the performance of a financial analyst with the same criteria as a shipper/receiver? Comparing these apples to those oranges is disastrous, and actually generates distorted and inaccurate results, making the whole process a waste of time. Each job has a set of duties specific to it, and it’s in those varying degrees of accomplishment where performance can be rated accurately.

Just once a year?  Performance reviews are much more effective in short cycles. Improvement areas stay fresh, and reviewing performance sooner than later increases the chances of making progress. The review process will feel more like a calibration effort instead of some one-off, dreaded exercise, lessening the anxiety associated with performance reviews. Shoot for quarterly reviews, or at least perform them every six months. Again, every workplace has particular details to work around, but the point is to work around them in a way that leaves a reasonable amount of space between each review period. Make a schedule and stick to it.

Yes, performance reviews can be (and often are) painful. They don’t have to be though. Each workplace has its own unique dynamics, and integrating the strategies above can be very effective if they’re applied with that uniqueness in mind.

About the author

Peter is a workplace training consultant based in Southern Ontario. He is known for his ability to communicate the importance of safe work practices in ways that create safety-conscious environments. Peter draws upon statistical analysis, best practices, and human motivation to shape the way we think about safety. He encourages readers to email him at

Peter Treacy
Workplace Training Consultant
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