Performance Appraisal Woes

May 16, 2005

I’m no fan of most of the performance appraisal systems I see used in A/E/P and environmental consulting firms. The simple fact of the matter is they don’t work. They don’t motivate anyone to do better, they don’t protect the firm in employee lawsuits, and the managers usually hate doing them. As I brace myself for an extra ration of hate mail from human resources managers everywhere, I urge the rest of you to be honest with yourselves, even if the H.R. people cannot. Am I right or not? They don’t motivate people to do better because most of these forms don’t really say anything. One size fits all regardless of the specific role filled. They have numbered scales that mean one thing to one employee and something different to another. The person delivering the appraisal has probably had no training whatsoever and may not know all the employee does, since the employee typically has many different bosses. They are often tied to or done concurrently with pay reviews, and once the question of, “Did I get a decent raise, or not?” has been answered, the rest of the discussion means little. In fact, I would have to say that you are probably as likely to demotivate someone with an appraisal as you are to motivate them. These things don’t protect the firm and, in fact, may actually provide the hard evidence that would be difficult for a plaintiff to collect otherwise. A history of good appraisals (and they are rarely anything but) could prove the firm in fact acted arbitrarily and capriciously when deciding who got promoted and who didn’t, or who got laid off and who didn’t. This paper trail hurts the company’s case as often or more often than it helps it! The managers hate ‘em because they are uncomfortable telling people, many of whom are their friends, how they are REALLY doing. It’s easier to ignore poorperformance, unless it’s so bad that the person has to be fired. We are very tolerant and rarely fire anyone. We also are just plain uncomfortable setting ourselves up as superior to others— something a performance APPRAISAL requires. Managers also feel that these things take up too much time. The forms are long. And as a further indication managers hate them, they are late delivering them (or simply don’t do them at all) at least half the time. I can admit it’s easy to be critical. But what’s a better way to do things? I have an idea for a performance appraisal system that would be a vast improvement over the way most of us do things now. It would simply be an eBay-type rating scale for every person on every project. The PM would rate each team member, and each team member could rate the PM. The scale would offer three choices— “positive,” “neutral,” or “negative.” Then, there would be 80 characters worth of space for comments. These ratings would show up behind everyone’s name. Too many negatives, and it’s clear who’s doing their job and who isn’t. The feedback would be continuous, either at certain milestones in the project (say, completion), or simply done every week on all employees at the same time, including non-billable staff. This system would be simple and provide documented evidence of performance or lack thereof. I can’t claim credit for this idea. A CEO in a client company came up with it some years back. I’d name him if not for the fact that the program was never implemented there (or elsewhere, to the best of my knowledge). They probably had too many geniuses in their management ranks who told the CEO why this idea (or any other) won’t work. I get so fed up with the “can’t do” types, I want to scream sometimes. I think this system would work if handled properly. Maybe there are other ideas out there. Let’s look to other industries to see what they are doing, instead of just talking to other firms in this business. But before we can start trying some of these new approaches to performance appraisal, we need to tell our human resources experts that we don’t like the current system. Get them to admit we have a problem and solicit their help in designing something better. One last thought— if you think I’m crazy, I suggest you survey your employees and managers on this subject. Ask the hard questions and let ‘em respond anonymously. You’ll quickly see what a waste of time most of these formal performance appraisals really are. Originally published 5/16/2005

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