Painful Performance Reviews

He knew the phone call was coming; actually, he thought she would have called him earlier.

Brad glanced at his calendar as he listened to Jean’s voicemail. It was January 25th and he was a month late in submitting the performance reviews for his 11 direct reports.

“Hey Brad, this is Jean. It’s Friday morning around 10:15.  I don’t know if you are traveling but I’d need to speak with you at your earliest convenience. Thanks.”

Brad’s stomach tighten as he listened to Jean’s message. He didn’t dislike Jean; he only hated the work that the VP of Human Resources was expecting him to do.  He was jetlagged from a 10-day trip to Asia, had plans to go skiing on the weekend with his twin boys, and had no time to fill out documents, which he felt added, little if any value to the business he was managing.

As he was working from home today, Brad thought about waiting until Monday to stop by Jean’s office, but he knew the issue wasn’t going to vanish so he grabbed the phone and dialed the call.  With any luck he’d get her voicemail and could say that he at least tried to speak with her. No such luck:

“Hello, this is Jean,” came her reply.  “Hi Jean, this is Brad returning your call,” he answered.  “Oh, hi Brad. Thanks for getting back to me. I need to talk to you about the performance reviews for your direct reports. You know they are way over due and Joe is tightening the screws that I get everything to him a.s.a.p. Can I get your documents on Monday?” she pressed.

“Jean, I just got back from a trip to Asia and haven’t had any time to work on these performance reviews. You know that I’m not a big fan of this performance review process because I don’t think it adds any value to my team,” Brad stated.   Jean countered: “Brad, I know your point of view very well and it seems that we hit a wall on this issue every year. There is a good reason why we go through the annual performance review process and if you’d like, I can spell it out to you again.”  “Jean, you don’t need to do that. I’ve been at this company for almost 20 years and I understand the processes. As Global VP of Sales I need to deliver on the numbers not create hundreds of pages of documents that disappear into someone’s personnel file,” Brad said trying to keep his composure.

Realizing that Brad was upset and jetlagged, Jean didn’t push any further and suggested that they get together on Monday to continue their discussion.  Brad agreed to this and hung up the phone.

Brad went to the kitchen to make himself a strong cup of coffee and thought about his predicament.  Was he really the only executive who hated writing up worthless performance reviews or did others share the same opinion?  He looked at his watch and saw that he had a few hours before his wife returned from work and the boys from school. Returning to his desk, Brad opened his browser and typed in: “Pros and Cons of Annual Performance Reviews”. He started to read the articles that popped up.

After a great weekend of skiing with his boys, Brad got to the office early on Monday morning.  He felt that he was equipped to take up the performance review “battle” with Jean after the research he had done on Friday.

Jean passed his door shortly after he arrived and asked if he had time for coffee around 10 o’clock.  Brad agreed.

Jean showed up at Brad’s office very punctually and got right to the topic at hand: “Brad, I need you to get the performance reviews done for your direct reports a.s.a.p. You’re always the last person to complete these. I’m tired of covering for you” she stated bluntly.

Brad came back: “Jean, I totally understand your urgency on this matter but I’ve had some other issues that I’ve had to deal with these past few weeks. If you’d like, I’d be happy to go directly to Joe and argue my case.”  “You might just have to do that, Brad, because I don’t know what I should tell him,” she said.

“Jean, do you know that there are many companies, companies even bigger than us, who are moving away from performance reviews?” Brad inquired.  “Yes, Brad, I’m aware of that fact but that’s not a path we are taking” Jean stated.  “Well maybe we should consider it.  Personally, I don’t believe annual performance reviews make my team any better”, Brad added.  He continued: “I’ve got direct reports all over the globe and I see each one of them personally at least four times a year. On top of that I’m on webinars with them weekly.  They are each managing their own virtual teams and I actively participate in these meetings.  I observe the team dynamics.  I see how they are managing the individuals in their team and if things aren’t going well, I give them the feedback directly after the meeting has ended.  I can’t afford to wait until the end of the year to give my guys feedback. And, that’s not how they want to be managed!” declared Brad.

Jean listened as Brad continued:  “Our performance management system demands that I rate every one of my eleven direct reports and determine who are the high, mid and low performers. Can I tell you something?” Brad inquired: “They are all top performers and that’s why we always hit our numbers! If they weren’t then they wouldn’t be on my team.  You can ask any one of my reports if they know if I’m happy with their performance. They know exactly where they stand with me.”

Jean was a bit shocked by the forcefulness of Brad’s discourse.

“Jean, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do and hopefully you will be ok with it”, stated Brad.  “I’ll spend the afternoon summarizing the performance of each of my direct reports. You’ll get a couple of paragraphs on each person. But I’m not going to force rank them because I can’t. They are all high achievers and there’s no way I could communicate anything differently to them. If you think Joe will have a problem with that, then I’ll discuss it with him directly.”

Brad’s passion for the issue of performance reviews made a big impact on Jean.  She was willing to go to bat for Brad and see if she could get Joe to agree on the process Brad suggested for his own team.  It also got her thinking that maybe, just maybe, their company needed to take another look at a process that hadn’t been updated for the past 25 years.