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April 24, 2007
How to Use Reviews to Motivate Employees and Unleash Performance

Are your managers constantly looking up synonyms to write a variation on the same review for the umpteenth employee? Are reviews in your company solely a vehicle for salary increases? Or is the process being changed every 12 months?

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Yes, performance reviews are as constant as "death and taxes," Stephen Parker, senior vice president for BlessingWhite, Inc. told attendees at NY HR Week on April 18. But Parker said that there really is a purpose to the madness--it's to "unleash performance" and "fuel employees with motivation."

Unfortunately, in most companies, where reviews focus on the negatives and "wave a flag that no one sees," managers and employees either dread the annual process or show little interest in it, Parker said. Reviews become perceived as an end unto themselves; a mechanism just for raises and promotions. And the result is little sustainable improvement in employee performance despite all the time and effort.

Change May Not Help

Then the dissatisfaction leads to 50 percent to 75 percent of companies revising their systems annually. When performance reviews are called something different each year, but essentially remain the same, and managers are given little training and no feedback, they see no potential in the process and just grind out reviews with little thought, Parker explains. Managers fail to "get the point" of performance management process and just "work around it." Bad reviews are simply ignored.

Or companies may try putting performance review on line. "This is HR's most complicated function," said Parker, "but this [putting them online] just pushes the bad through the process faster." The companies may try forced ranking, but "then the C+ employees leave to be an A somewhere else," Parker said. Or they may try peer ranking "where everyone is after the same piece of pie."

It's Not All About Performance

Parker told his audience of HR professionals that performance reviews are really a tool that can help to deliver many core HR goals: strengthening retention, driving recruitment, meeting legal compliance requirements--and even increasing employee engagement. But they cannot be solely based on performance. "Reviews measure about 5 percent of the job; 90 percent is not measurable," Parker said. "Many goals and drivers are just not easy to measure."

And of course, employee decisions must be based on business needs," Parker emphasized, "it's not just about performance."

What You Can Do

  • Survey employees. What do they understand about your organization and its goals? Do they know your company's mission or was it something only mentioned during their orientation? Are they inspired to do their best work?
  • Focus on intent. What is driving your reviews? Focus on the intent of reviews: to reinforce the company culture and the ongoing commitment of employees.
  • Explain measures. Translate generic goals to department goals and explain how goals are measured for rewards or negative consequences. Show employees linkage.
  • Train managers, and then hold them accountable. Train managers on performance metrics and give them specific goals, such as scores on employee surveys. "Don't train narrowly," said Parker. Show them how to manage to the company mission every day, not just during reviews. And make measurable improvement part of their performance goals.
  • Celebrate talents, energy, and effort. Emphasize to managers that they can't churn out generic reviews; each employee is unique, and so every review must be unique. And highlight positives as well as negatives in reviews.
  • Emphasize sustained performance during reviews.
  • Empower managers to use reviews as a springboard to meaningful discussions with employees.
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