The Performance Rating

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, May 1993

Just as the ancient agricultural cycle of sowing and reaping recurs from time immemorial, so does the modern cycle of the work year. You put forth your best efforts for a good many months. Then there is a mysterious meeting of your managers known as the performance review, in which your pitiful efforts are judged. This is followed by the dreaded notification of your performance rating and the correspondingly inadequate raise. The theory is that you will reap what you have sown. That's the theory, anyway.

The reader will be shocked to learn that this process is imperfect. At least in agriculture when you plant potatoes, you get potatoes. You may not get anything, of course, but you never get a turnip, for instance. Alas, in the world of business the laws of determinism do not apply. The wonderful seed that you have planted may have its beauty only in your own eyes. What you see as a potato may be judged to be a turnip, and thus a turnip it is. You would be well advised to discover in advance how this year's turnip crop will be discerned.

When the time of year is judged to be right -- when the moon is pale, and the frost gathers on the pumpkins -- the managers in their great wisdom meet behind closed doors to perform their annual ritual. The assembled troops pace nervously in the corridors outside, awaiting the puff of smoke from the chimney indicating that decisions have been reached. Later, of course, these managers will themselves pace nervously as their managers gather behind closed doors. Nobody should miss the fun.

In their zealous quest for perfection, the human relations department changes the rules for the review every year. Whatever the process was the preceding year, it is now believed to have been a mistake. Fortunately, management science now knows the correct way to judge and motivate people through performance review.

In years gone by, people were largely spared the exact knowledge of their ranking. Of course, they might trade raise information with others and make assumptions about where they might stand, but their rating was not a computable value. Then, later when they were fired for nonperformance, they were greatly surprised and angered. "They never told me," was the universal cry of innocence.

Such anger, together with a court case or two, convinced the personnel departments of a basic law of human nature. It is: People want to be told. Thus the new rules were proclaimed. Everyone would be placed in a well-defined category with a specific label. There would be no ambiguity about how a person was performing in the organization. People would be informed of their rating.

The manager looks up nervously as John comes in for his annual performance evaluation. "Well, John, let's just get right down to business," he says. "Your performance this year has been found to be lacking in certain qualities that this company values. Consequently, when we assigned performance categories you were placed in the, uh ..., the ..., well, what we have termed the 'turkey' category. Now I hasten to add that this rating may not be as bad as it sounds. You'll find the exact definition in our performance rating manual, but at least it places you above the 'lemming' category, where we would, ah..., um..., ask people to leave our employment."

The supervisor looks quickly at his watch, and his eyes nervously brush the appointment calendar on his desk. "If your performance improves next year, John, I think you might be able to move up to the 'ostrich' rating," he says with an encouraging smile.

John frowns slightly, but the beginning of a smile starts around his eyes. "Thank you sir," he says. "I am glad to be informed about this low rating." He glances calmly out the window at the trees in the parking lot, and there is a slight pause. "It is always good to know the truth," he finishes sincerely.

Fiction, isn't it? Let's get real. What does John actually say?

"What?!" cries John. "You've made a terrible mistake. What is the appeal process? I have a list right here of 133 significant accomplishments that I made last year. I want a transfer! You know what you can do with your rating. If anyone is a turkey around here it's you!"

From conversations such as this, managers formed their own law of human nature. It is: People will reject the truth.

Meanwhile, John goes back to his co-workers to begin his subtle campaign of subverting the rating system. After all, he's not going to tell his friends that he has been rated a "turkey." Instead, he stirs up conversation about the rating algorithm. "How do they come up with a rating around here?" he asks anyone who will listen. "Do they give you so many points for a patent and so many for a published paper? What happens if you're in a team that does some project? How do they divide the credit? They should tell us the exact algorithm that they use, so we'll know what counts. This whole process shouldn't be secret. We deserve to know."

From such conversations as this, the employees who are being rated form their own law of human nature to apply to the rating system. It is: The truth is not the truth.

Of course, not all employees are getting low ratings. Hank is one of the higher rated people, but his wife senses an unusual quiet during dinner. It takes some gentle persuasion, but she finally gets him to confess that he was informed of his performance rating that day. "Well?" she persists. "How did they rate you?"

"I was classified as a 'superstar'," he admits shyly.

"But that's fantastic!" she exclaims. "Why aren't you happy?"

"Well, they have these other people that they rate as 'megastars'. I didn't quite make the cut. It's really discouraging after all that I've done. Like, you know, Tom and Elaine -- they're megastars, and I'm better than they are. I spent the afternoon bringing my resume up to date. If this company doesn't appreciate me, I'll find somewhere that does."

You would think that at least Tom and Elaine would be motivated by their fantastic performance ratings, but Tom has heard a rumor that Elaine is also a megastar, and he is seething inside. There should be more quantization in the rating system, he believes, so that the obvious gap in performance between him and Elaine would be apparent.

Perhaps Elaine is happy and motivated. It is not certain.

Robert W. Lucky