Worried about a performance review?

Worried about how to handle an upcoming performance review?

I turned to Katherine Nelson, a faculty member teaching human resources at Temple University's Fox School of Business for advice. Before joining Temple, she worked in human resources for 30 years.

First of all, she said, it's best to assess the culture of the company: Is the review a genuine one aiming to help employees improve their productivity. Or is it a hostile work environment? Strategies will differ.

Being in human resources, Nelson has a bias toward the more positive view, which she explains:

"My understanding is that organizations asking employees to "review themselves" is part of a larger trend toward empowering employees. In the old days, employees in some places did not have much of a voice. The "command and control" style of leadership that was popular after World War II stayed in place for decades and managers "told" employees everything. Employees needed "permission" and "approval" to try new things or make a decision that would make a customer happy. Now we rarely see that old model. Today, organizations need to be nimble and they need to react quickly to changing market conditions. The old command and control model just doesn't work in that kind of hyper-competitive and quickly changing environment. 

"So, modern companies "empower" employees. In a nutshell, that means that companies spend a lot of time hiring qualified employees, then orienting and training them so they can problem solve on their feet and do what they need to do to keep customers happy. Companies using this new model push power and authority down into lower levels of the organization and because they do that, they eliminate layers of management and "flatten" the organization. This is all an attempt to eliminate bureaucracy, increase innovation, make customers happy, and make employees happy. 

"Back to performance management: Organizations that value employee empowerment -- and that is most orgs today -- often encourage employees to rate themselves. This process usually starts with goal setting. So, at the beginning of every year, managers work with employees to set goals for the year - and this is not done in a vacuum. It frankly won't work in a vacuum. This is a process where org execs set org goals and then communicate them to the rest of the org. The org goals are then used by various departments to create departmental goals. Then people in the departments take those goals and create their own personal goals. This kind of goal alignment from the top to the bottom is essential if the company is actually going to accomplish anything.

"Employees and managers should have been talking about these goals all year, so this shouldn't be a grand surprise to anyone in the process. In a healthy environment, if someone didn't know what to say about their "weaknesses," they could ask their manager. "What could I do to make me better? What courses could I take? What skills could I learn?" In a company like that, those questions would pose no threat or danger and a manager would provide guidance on what an employee could do to get to the next level or improve their skills.

"Usually when managers or evaluation forms ask for weaknesses, they are asking the person closet to the job what kind of additional training they need to be even more successful. So, if an employee could be even more responsive to customers if they understood how a particular computer system worked, the manager could then arrange for that kind of training for the employee."

Sounds good, I said to Nelson, but what about workers in more hostile situations, worried that something they might say might be used against them?

Here's her response: "If someone worked in such a perverse workplace (that's clearly what it would be!), then they could just say that they didn't think they had any weaknesses -- or they could identify a new technology that they wanted to learn. In other words, they could say something that wouldn't get them in hot water.

"Companies that try to play such "gotcha" games with their employees do not succeed for long. These kinds of hostile environments may be able to keep employees who have no options, but once the economy improves, good employees will move to other jobs. Good companies know this. The Holy Grail in companies today is employee engagement. You do not ever engage employees with the gotcha performance management game. It flies in the face of every good management and leadership technique and trend."

Nelson provided the big picture. Tomorrow: Some practical tips.