That was the headline of a 2014 Washington Post article. Performance reviews don’t work, and there’s a good reason why – they weren’t designed for today’s workplace.  They gained prominence in World War I when the US army adopted a merit rating system to identify poor performers. By the 1940s, it was estimated that 60% of U.S. companies used this system. Today, that figure stands at roughly 90%.  But what worked for soldiers and factory workers decades ago does not work for today’s knowledge workers.

Now for the good news. Forward thinking companies like Accenture, Adobe, Deloitte and Netflix are dumping performance reviews. This move was endorsed by the authors of an excellent Harvard Business Press book, Nine Lies About Work. They add to the argument by noting that it’s not feedback that millennials crave, it’s attention.  My experience tells me that they’re right.

Performance Reviews – Inherently Flawed

There are so many flaws with performance reviews. One Washington Post business writer called it a “rite of corporate kabuki” that restricts creativity, generates mountains of paperwork, and serves no real purpose.  My personal beef with the system is evaluators who use performance reviews to abrogate their responsibility to teach and correct in real time. The teachable moment is passed on to a mentor or someone on the performance management team, often months after the fact. That person may be only vaguely familiar with the complexities of the task generating the feedback. I have delivered feedback to an associate on his application of the Income Tax Act to a complex business transaction. At least it was complex to me; I can’t even do my own tax return. I delivered the review reliant upon a partner’s cryptic written comments and her personal interpretation of the feedback form’s numerical ranking system. While the form provided detailed criteria for the ranking system’s application, and the criteria had been painstakingly drafted to assure universality of application, the only thing I was ever assured of was that it was not being universally applied.

What to do?

It’s time to switch from performance management systems to associate advancement systems. Replace annual or bi-annual reviews with brief, frequent meetings focusing on current work experiences and skills development. Instead of talking about people (via lengthy feedback forms), spend time talking to your people about what they need to succeed. Communicate like respectful adults rather than forcing your bright, ambitious professionals through a system that makes them feel like they’re being called to the principal’s office. Your associates will feel supported rather than judged and your partners will be relieved to be freed from completing those nasty, long forms. 


Harvard Business Review Press, “Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World”, 2019, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall

Harvard Business Review, “The Performance Management Revolution

QSR International, “Performance reviews: do they really matter?”

Copyright © 2020 Deborah Glatter. All rights reserved.