On Performance Evaluation
by Skip Corsini

Performance evaluation is, like recruiting and dismissing employees, one of the great headaches in management today. In 30 years I have yet to meet one senior manager who expressed anything but frustration and dismay about this area of business operation. For many it is a necessary evil at best. Indeed, finding a company with a fair, equitable and internally supported evaluation system is about as likely as a Bid Laden sighting in the right field bleachers at Yankee Stadium.

There is no wonder why everybody from the CEO on down is so dissatisfied. In most companies there is little discussion of an individual employee's performance and built-in job-related expectations until it is either the proper moment for the annual review (and I use annual in a liberal sense), a time for firing, or a juncture in which layoffs are imminent. In most cases it is either managed poorly or conducted too late to make any difference. No wonder so many people feel lost in the storm of modern American business practices.

The first problem is that most practices are punitive, intentionally or not. It is far less frequent that an employee will be "written-up" for doing something well than for having done something judged to be faulty. This mysterious condition of the workplace requires further study. The other problem is that most systems are biased in favor of senior management and thus perceived as having little or no credibility by the middle and lower levels of the organizations.

Among the practices of the "old" Hewlett Packard management system was a method of evaluating team leaders, particularly in engineering, in which the team evaluated the leader. In an environment in which collaboration and collegiality are valued, this mechanism worked very well. When a manager was judged to be unsuitable for the assignment, he or she was simply let go or reassigned. This kind of thing often works well in professional service firms in architectural, legal, or construction services. I believe this is the case because the work is usually organized around individual projects, cases, and assignments for which there are clear objectives easily identifiable for people at all levels and facets of the firm.

Since professional service firms do not dominate corporate America there remains a void. As leaders we've tried everything from management by objectives, 360-degree evaluation programs (perhaps the worst idea to ever descend from on high), and misguided forms of augmented self-evaluation to no systems at all. In most cases these systems are paper-based, which is fine except that there is no sound way to commit human actions, aspirations, and achievements to paper.

We are doomed only if our mistaken assumptions keep us doing things incorrectly, such as when we import a system of evaluating performance that we heard worked over at Acme but couldn't possibly work in our company given its culture, history, and primary focus. We don't all have a culture like the old H-P, and even if we did their ways may not be suitable for us. And we aren't going to get the answer from our well-meaning human resources staff or outside consultants. Based on my experiences with larger companies, I would gladly throw out the HR departments and burn their manuals.

My father-in-law is retired from the merchant marine. He was a ship's captain who later served as superintendent of marine operations for a global shipping firm. In his business, performance evaluation happened on a daily, even hourly, basis. The basis of the system was a culture of adventurousness, selective cruelty, energy, intelligence, and justice. Please note the last word in the previous sentence. Without that, the ships don't move.


Skip Corsini represents Dale Carnegie Training in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has a 29-year career in sales, marketing, advocacy, public relations, education and corporate training and development. He is a freelance writer in addition to his real job. In his spare time he bakes 30-minute brownies in just 20 minutes. You may contact Skip at scorsini@sbcglobal.net .

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Copyright 2003 by Skip Corsini. All rights reserved.

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