Sutton: Are Performance Reviews Really Essential?

Last Updated Oct 21, 2008 8:42 AM EDT

The Takeaway: Performance reviews are an accepted and expected part of life in most organizations, and one to which managers, consultants, HR professionals, and software firms devote a whole lot of time and money. But just because performance reviews are so entrenched, that doesn't mean they're valuable. According to Culbert, "performance reviews are supposed to provide an objective evaluation that helps determine pay and lets employees know where they can do better." Unfortunately, the reality is often quite different:
Inevitably reviews are political and subjective, and create schisms in boss-employee relationships. The link between pay and performance is tenuous at best. And the notion of objectivity is absurd; people who switch jobs often get much different evaluations from their new bosses.
"I agree completely that performance evaluations are broken and need to be reinvented and possibly replaced with something else," responds Sutton, but he also uses Culbert's idea to make a more general point about not accepting, without reflection, that some office policy or procedure is valuable:
In many cases, after people have spent years trying to perfect some procedure, gadget, or feature that they -- usually mindlessly -- accept as something they cannot do without and then a breakthrough happens when some clever person (often someone who isn't an expert in the field) comes along and removes it or unwittingly goes forward and succeeds without it. Then everyone realizes that they never needed it at all.
Sutton's examples include Apple deep sixing mouse buttons (first one, now none) and submarine escape technology (apparently, no technology is the best technology). The final takeaway is not just that maybe we should toss the performance review as we know it, but also that "people, often unwittingly, often have a huge impact by removing things that everyone assumes are essential."

The Question: Are performance reviews useful in their current incarnation, and is some version of them, in fact, essential?

(Image of bad management technique by goosmurf, CC 2.0)

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.