Friday, July 15, 2011

Job Reviews Should Be Continuous, Not Scheduled

Thomas Friedman has described what he sees as an innovation in the supervision of employees:
Today’s college grads need to be aware that the rising trend in Silicon Valley is to evaluate employees every quarter, not annually. Because the merger of globalization and the I.T. revolution means new products are being phased in and out so fast that companies cannot afford to wait until the end of the year to figure out whether a team leader is doing a good job.
Performance review is an important part of supervision, but in my experience it's largely a bureaucratic wasted effort. Supervisors "do their job" by interviewing their employees once per year, checking a few boxes on a form, perhaps typing up a few paragraphs of commentary, and calling it a day. When performance falls within the acceptable range, and sometimes when it falls below the acceptable, all too often the content of a review is driven more by personality than performance. It's not unusual to hear an employee complain, "I had fantastic reviews every year, but my new supervisor hates me and gave me a bad review" - but the real issue may be that the former supervisor didn't want to hurt their feelings or didn't have the courage to give an honest review of the employee's mediocre work.

To be effective, review needs to be ongoing. You'll do much better for your employee and company if you identify a problem in its early stages and start mentoring (or, if necessary, disciplining) the employee at that time. If you have a problem with an employee that has been brewing for a year, you are seriously derelict in your supervision of that employee if the first time he hears about it is during his annual review.

Moving reviews to a quarterly basis may help overcome the "annual review" effect, because issues are more likely to be addressed close to the time they arise. The quality of the review process, and whether the supervisor sees it as part of mentoring employees or as paperwork that will go, unread by anybody else, into a personnel file, still matters. But if done correctly there is an increased opportunity to reward competence and correct problems, and a structure that may help identify issues that might fall beneath the notice of a supervisor if no formal review plan were in place. Done wrong, it will simply waste more of everybody's time.

Friedman is speaking about something else, the need for employees to stay at the top of their fields. In association with that, he overstates the product cycle for a typical company - it's a rare high tech or Internet firm that rolls out new products by the quarter instead of the year, and it's a rare product that will be developed inside of one to two quarters. He also misunderstands that many to most workers, even in high tech fields, are not actively developing products. The supervision of support personnel can provide a better environment for the innovators, and can help ensure quality customer service, improved cash flow and the like, but in most industries a relatively small percentage of the employees are charged with innovation or spearheading the most important new products. For many employees, even in tech firms, it will be personality issues, core competence and work ethic that are the principal considerations in their performance review, not whether they've mastered the latest programming tools and techniques.

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