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Who Needs Performance Reviews?

The Careerist a blog
By Vivia Chen
July 15, 2010


Here at The American Lawyer, the editorial staff is cowering like rabbits awaiting slaughter at the Guangzhou market. One by one, our colleagues are being called to the glass room. What's going on? It's time for our annual performance reviews!

Okay, so I exaggerate about reporters being frightened bunnies, but we don't relish reviews, either.

But I'd bet lawyers dread them far more. The stakes are certainly higher. For journalists, the raise (if there is one) is so paltry that it wouldn't cover a lawyer's annual dry cleaning bill. But for lawyers, the review could be worth tens of thousands of dollars in bonus money. At the other extreme, if the raise is small, it could signal that the ax is about to fall. That's particularly true now as firms move away from lockstep compensation to a merit-based system for even associates.

There's a lot of hype and tension surrounding annual reviews, but is all the fuss worth it? And do they ultimately make any difference at all in how people perform?

Experts say reviews are at best meaningless, and at worst destructive. One leading opponent is Samuel  Culbert, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the business school of the University of California, Los Angeles. He writes in The Wall Street Journal:

You can call me "dense," you can call me "iconoclastic," but I see nothing constructive about an annual pay and performance review. It's a mainstream practice that has baffled me for years.

To my way of thinking, a one-side-accountable, boss-administered review is little more than a dysfunctional pretense. It's a negative to corporate performance, an obstacle to straight-talk relationships, and a prime cause of low morale at work. Even the mere knowledge that such an event will take place damages daily communications and teamwork.

Moreover, the boss and employee come to the review with different mind-sets:

The boss wants to discuss where performance needs to be improved, while the subordinate is focused on such small issues as compensation, job progression, and career advancement. The boss is thinking about missed opportunities, skill limitations, and relationships that could use enhancing, while the subordinate wants to put a best foot forward, believing he or she is negotiating pay.

The result, adds Culbert, is that boss and employee are "talking past each other," and "the discussion accomplishes nothing. More likely, it creates tensions that carry over to their everyday relationships."

Another gripe Culbert has is the "predetermined checklist" of performance measures. He says "bosses apply the same rating scale to people with different functions. . . . As a result, bosses reduce their global sentiments to a set of metrics that captures the unique qualities of neither the person nor the job."

If you think business managers are bad at this, lawyers surely are worse. "Firms tend to be behind clients in sophisticated talent management," says psychologist and career coach Ellen Ostrow. "In law firms, associates feel terrorized, mainly because they don't know what to expect. Partners generally don't give them feedback [during the year], so they are surprised when they get a negative review." Moreover, Ostrow says reviews tend to be based on personal impressions that are "fraught with gender and race bias."

So what can associates do if they get a bad review? "I'd go back to the partner who reviewed you and say, 'I didn't realize you were so disappointed with my writing or that project, and I want to know how to improve,'" suggests Ostrow. "Even if a partner seems unapproachable, be smart and talk to them. Remember, they are human beings."

So far, the best argument I've heard for the annual review is that it helps employers set the stage to fire someone. Now there's an uplifting thought that promotes trust, not to mention oodles of warm feelings.

I'm hardly an expert, but I can't believe many people think reviews really help performance. Yet, I don't think anyone will have the gumption to pull the plug on this practice. It's been enshrined as a must-do--like taking out the garbage, flossing your teeth, and getting a colonoscopy. I'd argue, however, that those activities yield more tangible results.

How do you feel after a review: elated, angry, confused, numb? Does anyone ever come out of it thinking, "Wow, I learned so much; I really have a map to the future now!"?

Bosses--won't you weigh in on this too?


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