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I recently went through a yearly ritual for most American workers: the performance review.  It goes by other names, but the general idea is the same.  I’ve come, over the years, to view these worker report cards with a certain level of apathy.  This isn’t because I don’t care about my job performance, but because, at least at the companies I have worked for, they have stopped being used for their originally intended purpose.  The reason I say this is because in the current environment the performance review seems to be more the “do I get a raise” meeting.  The upshot of that is that the reviews have begun to have rules imposed upon them by management that have no place in the process. 

In truth, while job performance should be a major factor in any pay raises, a performance review and the decision to grant or not grant a pay increase should be different and separate processes.  When the two processes are ties directly together the performance appraisal process becomes intellectually dishonest.

Allow me to explain my reasoning with some examples from my personal experiences.

In many of the companies I have worked for we have been told that to truly be considered for a “merit increase” one must receive 4’s or 5’s (on a five point scale).  We have then been told that these particular scores will only be distributed in cases of people going truly above and beyond, since a merely doing your job earns the baseline 3.

I can understand this, though, again, the direct tie to salary here can be problematic.

The true problem begins when any company, and many do this, tell their reviewing management that they have a certain number of 4’s and 5’s they can distribute and that they should do their reviewing on the bell curve concept.  This is where the intellectual dishonesty begins in the appraisal process.

The reason I say this is because I may be denied a 4 or 5 that my manager feels that I have earned because he only has so many to give out among all his reviews.  Therefore, if I feel my performance rated a higher score I now have to wonder if I received the lower score because that is what I earned or because my manager did not have any higher one’s left to hand out. 

Now, I understand that these issues can often be overcome by a candid face-to-face meeting to discuss the review, but the problem can go beyond simply misunderstanding of the appraisal.  Giving scores that do not necessarily reflect the true performance of the worker, but their place on a bell curve can also affect them as they try to post for higher positions or other opportunities.  If their performance reviews look like they are a stagnant worker it may put them at a disadvantage in these processes that may, again, be unwarranted.

The solution to this in my mind, is to place a wall between the performance and salary processes.  Give workers an honest, candid review of their performance.  If they earned the higher score, give it to them.  Let them know that they have been performing at that level, and that it will be reflected in their record for decision makers unfamiliar with them to see when they seek further opportunities.  Morale will improve.  People will have a clearer vision of their true strengths and weaknesses.  And, most importantly, there will be no more ambiguity in the process.

Consider salary separately.  Yes, the review should be a factor, but again candor is key here.  If there a budgetary or fiscal concerns that make raises minimal or impossible, communicate that.  I would much rather hear that I did not get an increase due for fiscal reasons than because I got 3’s instead of 4’s because my manager had to grade on a bell curve. That is an honest answer that gives me an honest view of both my performance and my employer.

The workplace could do with a bit more intellectual honesty in this day and age.


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