Fixing the broken performance review (Roundtable)

How can HR salvage the dreaded performance review?
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/20/2015

Performance review — it’s the longest four-letter word in the organizational handbook. Employees hate them, managers loathe them and HR keeps singing their praises.

“It turns people off when not done thoughtfully. Managers hate it. We haven’t cracked the code on this one,” said Ian Hendry, president of the Strategic Capability Network and vice-president of HR for Interac. 

So, how it can be fixed?

Mark Edgar, senior vice-president of HR at RSA Canada in Toronto, wondered if organizations succumb to the pressure to have some type of process in place without being “brave enough” to use a more authentic method.

“It should be around leaders having good conversations every day,” he said. “We’re not willing to take that leap and accept that accountability. I’m not sure what the barrier is for that — we push a process through that makes us feel we’ve ticked the box. It could be a lot better.”

Performance management in its base form is “simply a vehicle to make sure there is at least one good conversation a year, which is sort of a sad situation,” said Heather Briant, senior-vice president of people at Cineplex Entertainment. “And while data analytics has become a key business driver, rating people is still an imperfect art.”

One shift that could help is inviting the employee to own much more of the conversation, said Helen Giffen, a Toronto-based human resources executive.

“Equipping employees with the tools to have good feedback conversations, seek information and get clarity around goals signals to them that they’re in charge of their own success,” she said. 

“Making sure they understand the broader needs of the organization and have done some legwork around translating that into objectives for the following year, helps managers engage employees in the company’s future. It’s really kind of turning it upside down.”

But managers simply have too much on their plates, said Giffen, and many don’t take good notes through the year about what workers accomplished. Many organizations also lack effective feedback collection systems.

“If we can put it in the hands of the people who benefit most and who have the highest vested interest to have quality conversations and support them doing well... we can make a difference,” she said.

Cadillac Fairview has made performance management more than an annual conversation, said Norm Sabapathy, executive vice-president of people, with an enterprise performance coaching system that requires quarterly coaching meetings between managers and employees.

“It’s grounded in determining behaviours that will drive the results — and one or two  behaviours, very focused — and that drives that conversation every quarter,” said Sabapathy.

HR is then focused on holding the organization accountable to ensure conversations happened, then measuring and helping boost their quality. The conversations are rated on a five-point scale — and it’s not managers evaluating how they did, it’s employees.

“They think about their performance, how much traction they’re getting and the quality of the coaching conversation they had,” he said. “It’s made a big difference.”

Managers overburdened

Hendry wondered if managers are being asked to do too much administrative work, to the point where they simply can’t conduct an effective performance review.

“I wonder if there is a legitimate complaint that can be had of HR that we haven’t stepped up to say that we’re never going to get this if we load them up the way we do.”

HR hasn’t invested enough time in quantifying how important a manager’s role is in the performance review process, said Edgar.

“I don’t think we’ve been clear that you get value from a leader being a leader, and that that involves being a talent builder, being a coach and being a performance manager,” he said. “Their roles become too much focused on being an individual contributor as well. You have to be realistic about what you give people to do.”

Managers don’t have time for the people management side, said Laura Dunne, senior vice-president of human resources at Indigo Books & Music in Toronto.

“And it’s the really good leaders that carve it out because they know that, ultimately, it creates capacity for them, drives engagement and builds the future capability of the organization.”

Many firms have invested in technology to make performance reviews as quick and easy as possible — which should mean less time on the actual task and more time spent on the conversation and coaching, said Giffen. But you never hear managers complain about the amount of time it takes to create a budget or do financial forecasts, she said.

“To them, that is part of their job, even though it may not be part of the core function,” said Giffen. “So people management is really the same. The trick is helping people to understand the payback and make it an integrated part of their job, rather than thinking of it as an extra activity they have to do.”


As for employee self-assessments, Hendry believes they can be negative for everyone involved when done poorly and people tend to overvalue themselves. That puts managers on the defensive and they have to talk the employee down on performance.

“It’s not a conversation you want to have,” he said.

It also takes the onus off the manager to know what’s going on — she can simply wait for the self-review to roll in.

At Cadillac Fairview, Sabapathy favours self-assessment and he’s seen employees both over and underrate their performance.

“I always like to start with the self-evaluation. And I’ve actually learned things I wouldn’t have learned if I had just given them my point of view and then had the discussion, because I would probably have truncated a thought they really wanted to get out.”

On the practical front, employees only have to do one, so they’re going to put more thought and effort into it versus a manager who is doing 10, said Dunne.

“It’s hard for managers to do them well. But, if you’re doing your own, you’re going to put more into it. The amount of time you put into it reflects how important it is to you.”

Dunne tends to see more employees underscoring their own performance, but said HR needs to equip managers to have conversations for both overrated and underrated self-reviews.

Sabapathy said he’s trying to eliminate the amount of time managers spend worrying about rating people “satisfactory” and putting comments.

“I’ve not seen that add value to a person or to a manager,” he said. “Figure out the two or three things they did that were amazing and the two areas where they need to improve. That’s where I think we should focus.”

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