How Consistent Are Performance Review Criteria?

Few events in corporate life cause employees more anxiety than their annual performance reviews. Raises, promotions and even continued employment may be predicated on what workers often regard as the subjective judgment of their managers.

Recent research suggests that employees have cause for concern. Even within the same company managers often use entirely different performance criteria. “Employees often leave their reviews not knowing why they got them,” says co-author Maria Rotundo, assistant professor of human resource management and organizational behavior at the University of Toronto's Joseph L. Rotman School of Management. That has an impact on employee loyalty.

Rotundo's review of existing literature revealed three basic criteria that managers commonly rely on in their performance review of employees: Task performance —carrying out the responsibilities of the job; citizenship performance — willingness to help colleagues and volunteer at corporate events and, in general, how they contribute to a positive image of the company; and counterproductive performance — indulging in negative behaviors such as drug taking or arguing with coworkers and, in general, whether they harm the organization's image.

Hypothesizing that managers assign a relative weighting to these criteria depending on the employee's job, Rotundo chose to consider five jobs of differing complexity: accountant, administrative assistant, machine operator, nurse and retail cashier. She presented three- or four-sentence descriptions of imaginary workers performing these jobs to 504 managers from 17 North American organizations and asked those managers to evaluate the workers' performances. The result was clear. “I found variations,” Rotundo reports. “The managers each had their own policies.” Rotundo has since extended the survey to different types of jobs and produced similar results.

Her analysis showed that most managers fell into one of three clusters. One group emphasized task performance. Employees who were highly competent at their jobs earned high ratings, whereas those less competent received low ratings. Managers in the second cluster weighted task and counterproductive performance nearly equally. They expected employees to do their tasks well and also to avoid any counterproductive activities. And the third group of managers focused mainly on counterproductive performance. Negative behaviors dominated their views of their employees. None of the clusters regarded citizenship as a key criterion in performance reviews. This variability in criteria occurred among companies within the same industry and often within the same organization.

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