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Binning the performance review

14 September 2015

Ding, dong, the Performance Review (PR) is dead. Well, not quite. Instead the process is being rethought.

This is not new and has been going on since work began. The idea that people’s productivity might be tied to satisfaction is a relatively new one developed over the past century. And perhaps much undermined by the PR process?

In theory reviewing a person’s performance and working with them to be happy at work, to be able to do their job and see the value they add, and receive and provide feedback in a constructive way, etc. are wonderful ideals.

However, the reality of the PR process is often closer to institutional bullying and represents, for some critics of the practice, a fundamental mistrust of staff. It is, according to these critics, usually patently clear when and whether a team and its individual members are performing - or not? An added complication to reviewing most workers in what would be termed a knowledge-based society is that many of us do just that: ‘knowledge-based work’. How do you assess performance when nothing tangible is produced – what are the indicators and how are they measured? And what is the point of assessing performance once a year and retrogressively?

When performance is linked to bonus schemes other difficulties can arise as this comment on a recent Sydney Morning Herald article, assessing the value of PRs, indicates: “… does the bonus actually motivate high achievers or demotivate those who don't get a bonus? Should people be paid more for doing a good job or paid the right amount to do a good job in the first place and managed out if they don't?”

A number of large corporations, Deloitte, Accenture, SEEK and Microsoft, to name a few, are moving toward what Deloitte has described as a “nimbler, real-time system that can be managed at local office level and fuels future performance rather than assessing it in the past,” while also, it must be noted, steering away from providing demoralising ratings.

It’s like the old argument about whether workers are ‘efficient’ or ‘effective’. How do you reach ‘efficient’ when ‘efficient’ is “achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense”? The idea that business would be interested in defining ‘efficient’ makes no sense for business. Why? Because if productivity is to continue growing then ‘efficient’ can never be reached – which begs the question, if you can never be ‘efficient’ why would you bother trying? And if you did reach ‘efficient’, then where do you go to improve?

Measuring how effective someone is - how successful they have been in producing a desired or intended result - is much more useful. This assessment form would be an ongoing task-driven process and certainly a great deal more motivating.

Of course, unconscious or even conscious bias needs to be taken into account in the reviewing process, especially if the upshot of the changes to the existing system is to depend on managers’ continuous assessment and what would appear – now the matrix and evaluations and numbers are gone – to be a much more subjective review process.

No matter how well we think we don’t see differences and react to them, bias is not just probable but entirely possible. Studies have begun to show that women are far more heavily criticised and often personally than men and it doesn’t matter if the managers are male or female.

Unconscious bias is a major hurdle in any PR process.

According to Ainslie van Onselen, Director Women’s Markets, Inclusion and Diversity, “It’s important to manage people on output and productivity – it builds trust.”

Trust is important when it comes to flexible workplace practices and plays out in performance assessment.

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