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UCLA's Culbert: Dump Employee Performance Reviews Pronto

Samuel Culbert of UCLA's Anderson School of Management focuses on human resources and organizational behavior. His new book Get Rid of the Performance Review!: How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing--and Focus on What Really Matters deals with...well, the title pretty much says it all. Dilbert would be proud of the critiques that Culbert heaps on the practice of performance reviews in businesses.

BNET: What's the genesis of your new book?

Culbert: A few years ago, I was in the process of promoting my book Beyond Bullsh*t: Straight talk at Work, and I wanted to publicize it at an academic conference, so I wrote a quick paper on an issue I'd been dealing with for a long time. The paper was called "Why Wreck a Perfectly Good Relationship by Giving Someone a Performance Review?".

I sent the article to the Sloan Management Review, which had a deal with the Wall Street Journal. They told me it was to my advantage to cut it in half, but it still ran a whole page in the damn Journal. When the article was published, it created a big furor. It gained the most hits of any Wall Street Journal article ever. They had over 1000 letters to the editor, about 85 percent very positive. The other 15 percent came from people who would be economically hurt by what I advocated for: HR guys.

I received a tremendous expression of interest from a publisher in putting these ideas into a book. Through putting together the piece for the Journal, I had met the most talented writer and editor I had come across, Lawrence Rout. We started to work together. He really helped me deconstruct the ideas I'd written about for years.

In a cheeky, edgy way, I'm able to put important management issues in front of the reader: it's not just about the bullshit involved in the actual practice of delivering performance reviews. It's about the thinking within organizations that goes on that allows such a bogus, miserable practice to take place. Performance reviews are theoretically designed to establish the hierarchy and flow of authority within keep people accountable for their work...and to help individuals improve. They don't really do any of this; they just lead to all kinds of bogus stuff.

BNET: So, do you want to improve performance reviews?

Culbert: I want to kill them. They are supposed to be objective, but there is nothing objective about them. The metrics make no sense. The words used mean different things to different people semantically. The metrics create a system where people are being evaluated on the basis of deltas [deviations] from perfection. Whose perfection? You might get a 4.7 out of 5 on teamwork and you walk around puzzled saying "What do I need to do to get that final 0.3 points?".

BNET: There are companies that do have evaluation systems that they like and that even employees like. What do you do when you come across a company with a review system that seems to be running smoothly?

Culbert: I don't care if they are running smoothly, they are fraudulent. All they do is create distrust and inauthenticity in the workplace. Look, derivatives were running smoothly for awhile, that didn't make them good.

BNET: Why is this practice continued then, in your opinion?

Culbert: There's no group that knows more about this practice and all of the trouble it creates than the folks in HR. They have a motive for supporting performance reviews. What's their job? To get after managers who are late in turning in their reviews. Then, they get to hear the grief from the employees who think they were unfairly reviewed. But this practice is not about how the company sees or values an employee, it's about how an individual boss sees that person.

HR insists on grading on a curve; in the predominant practice, 20 percent are graded as excellent, 70 percent in some range of average and 10 percent are put on report and will be canned if they don't get better. Every aspect is fraudulent.

We'll hear more from Professor Culbert next week when we'll be introduced to his solution: the Performance Preview.