How to Make Job Reviews Less Terrible


NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Do job performance reviews help? A 2012 study from AccountTemps says 94% of company chief financial officers call formal job reviews either "somewhat or very effective" in aiding employee performance. But only 31% of employees believe the same thing.

It's the employees that may be on to something, according to a study on employee performance reviews in the Journal of Personnel Psychology.

The study, by Kansas State University business management professor Satoris Culbertson with help from researchers at Eastern Kentucky University and Texas A&M, shows that no employee — "even people who are motivated to learn" — sees negative performance reviews in a positive light.

Culbertson and his staff established some basic sketches of employees based on their workplace performance habits:

  • "Learning goal-oriented people" like to learn for the sake of learning and often pursue challenges despite setbacks.
  • "Performance-prove goal-oriented people" want to prove they are competent to perform a job.
  • "Performance-avoid goal-oriented people" want to avoid looking foolish.

While all three groups say they disapproved of employee reviews, what surprised Culbertson was that even learning goal-oriented staffers, who would seemingly welcome feedback designed to help them perform better, and add more value to their careers, hated job reviews, too.

"Surprisingly, we found that learning-oriented people were just as dissatisfied with an appraisal that had negative feedback as the performance-oriented people were," Culbertson says. "Nobody likes to get negative feedback — even those individuals who aren't trying to prove anything to others, but instead are just trying to learn as much as possible."

A big problem is that too many managers come off heavy-handed in job reviews and lose sight of what matters most: the elevation and motivation of employees in the workplace.

It's a problem so big that the entire job review system should be changed.

"It is not so much that the performance review needs to be abolished, but we need to fix what is broken," Culbertson says. "Instead of limiting ourselves to formal performance appraisals conducted once or twice a year, we need to think about performance management as a system that is linked with the strategy of the entire organization."

That strategy relies on regular, ongoing reviews. "We can actually make the most out of the system," Culbertson said. "But if we are only going to have once-a-year evaluations, we shouldn't expect it to work."

What else can management do to improve job performance reviews? Culbertson has some ideas:

Offer constructive feedback. This seems like a real no-brainer, but way too many managers go negative with job reviews. "Negative feedback is not the same as constructive feedback," Culbertson says. "We should be careful that negative feedback is provided in a way that is more constructive because it can help people try to improve."

Check the numbers. Many forms offer numbers-based reviews, with staffers earning a figure based on a 1-to-5 scale. Even if management gives an employee gives an employee "four stars," that employee may view it as a negative if she was expecting a five-star review. "This is where our words are really powerful," Culbertson says. "We want to make sure we are conveying to employees whether we are giving a good evaluation or describing something that needs to improve."

Hold off on the "sandwich." Another common mistake: Managers who offer positive feedback, then negative, then positive again. "Sometimes the sandwich approach comes across as dishonest or not something that people will buy," Culbertson adds.

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