Only three of 10 workers agree that their company's review process actually helps employees improve performance, according to a new study released by Watson Wyatt. That certainly would come...

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Only three of 10 workers agree that their company’s review process actually helps employees improve performance, according to a new study released by Watson Wyatt.

That certainly would come as no surprise to one woman, who wants to remain anonymous.

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Two years ago, after 18 years of stellar reviews, she ran into her first review debacle. The woman, who works for a university in New Orleans, is still smarting from the experience.

She worked in the international-student-affairs office and had also begun to help the provost, who worked in academic affairs, create a study-abroad program. The woman kept her boss abreast of the situation to some degree but knew her boss would not be thrilled with the prospect of her moving to another department.

When the program began to take shape, the boss threatened the woman with changes in a review that had already been on file for two weeks, and then made those changes. In the review, the boss accused the woman of going out of the chain of command and said she was disloyal and untrustworthy.

Needless to say, that review did not help the woman figure out where she could improve her performance. All it did was create more bad feelings between her and her boss.

I think it’s safe to say that most employees and managers hate review time. Managers often fear confrontation. And many employees fear they will read criticisms in their review they didn’t expect, when actually, there should be no surprises.

A good manager tells employees what could be improved as the workers are doing the job. Or tells the employees what they are doing right and should continue to do.

But managers are notoriously bad communicators, said Suzanne Bates, president of Bates Communications, a Wellesley, Mass.-based firm that consults with companies and executives on communication issues. It is a human tendency to inflate daily praise, ignore problems or magnify criticisms until everything seems out of control.

It’s hard, for sure, to tell people they are heading in the wrong direction. Not only because it’s difficult to tell workers they are lacking in some way, but also because managers have a substantial amount of things and people to worry about.

But communication is really the one skill at which all managers should excel, considering that their job is to push employees to complete the company’s mission.

It is a manager’s job to “give feedback. … That helps the bottom line,” said Sharon Armstrong, a career coach and co-author of “Stress-Free Performance Appraisals: Turn Your Most Painful Management Duty Into a Powerful Motivational Tool.”

But there is a balance to be had. Some managers turn a necessary checking-in into micromanagement.

Managers “need to decide they’re going to learn (to communicate). It’s like getting an MBA or learning any new skill. People aren’t born communicators. They learn to become communicators,” Bates said.

And with that, they learn to create good, useful reviews.

Most reviews start as a form to be filled out by the manager, full of questions that sound like psychobabble, he said.

Employees look at the reviews and wonder: “How does this actually help me do my work?” he said.

The human-resources department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., recently revamped its review process to make it both interactive and electronic. “We told [managers] it’s not just a once-a-year project, you have to talk to people on an ongoing basis,” said Mary Anna Quinn, vice president of human resources.

The system, launched in January, asks employees to fill in a form, doing things such as describing the most important function of their job, giving examples of their best work and discussing anything they would like to improve, change or learn more about. That is sent to each employee’s boss, who fills out a similar form evaluating the worker’s performance. Then the boss and employee get together to talk.

“I think it has helped. I don’t think a system like this alone is the only thing you can do,” Quinn said. “It’s all about the conversation.”