SHRM All Things Work

Jathan Janove on Why Performance Reviews Need to Change

Episode Summary

Employees want to know both how they're doing on the job, and their chances for promotion, but workers report feeling uninspired and underwhelmed by their most recent performance review. In this episode of All Things Work, host Tony Lee speaks with former employment law attorney, author and columnist Jathan Janove on how to rethink performance management, and HR’s role in helping people managers avoid bias in their employees’ performance reviews.

Episode Notes

Employees want to know both how they're doing on the job, and their chances for promotion, but workers report feeling uninspired and underwhelmed by their most recent performance review. In this episode of All Things Work, host Tony Lee speaks with former employment law attorney, author and columnist Jathan Janove on how to rethink performance management, and HR’s role in helping people managers avoid bias in their employees’ performance reviews.

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This episode of All Things Work is sponsored by UKG.

Episode transcript

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1: This episode is sponsored by UKG. UKG offers HR, payroll, and workforce management solutions that support your employees to make your fairytale workplace a reality.

Tony Lee: Welcome to All Things Work, a podcast from the Society for Human Resource Management. I'm your host, Tony Lee, Head of Content here at SHRM. Thank you for joining us. All Things Work is an audio adventure where we talk with thought leaders and tastemakers to bring you an insider's perspective on all things work. Today we're discussing performance reviews. Now research shows that the vast majority of employees want to know how they're doing on the job, as well as their chances for promotion. However, more than 80% of workers say their last review left them uninspired. And even though 93% of all companies say they provide performance reviews to employees, according to Gallup, 95% of managers say their organization's review system doesn't work.

Joining us today to talk about this issue is Jathan Janove. Based in Portland, Oregon, Jathan is a former employment law attorney, a columnist, the Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches. He's a master coach and a practice leader with the Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching.

Jathan, welcome to All Things Work.

Jathan Janove: Thank you, Tony. Happy to be here.

Tony Lee: Yeah, we're happy to have you. So let's start with which is probably the most important question, why do you think managers believe that performance reviews don't work?

Jathan Janove: Well, because they're right.

Tony Lee: They don't work.

Jathan Janove: Because they're right. That doesn't end the inquiry, but yes, that's the simple answer.

Tony Lee: All right. Well, so let's then ask, so is it because they don't know how to conduct an effective performance review?

Jathan Janove: They don't know how and the way things have been set up in the systems, and I think some misdirection in the HR profession have led to performance reviews that really aren't relationship building based, but are based on something else that's not helpful, not useful.

Tony Lee: Yeah. Let's talk about, I guess historically, performance reviews have always been something that's done annually. So I think many people agree that's an outdated practice, right?

Jathan Janove: Yes. I can share, if it's okay, a personal example.

Tony Lee: Sure.

Jathan Janove: So when I started as an attorney, many, many years ago, my law firm had an annual performance review process. It consisted of every December, the review committee would go around to the partners in the firm and ask for input on each of the associates. And then there'd be a knock on your door in mid-December, and it would tell you, "Hey, we're here," Associate Review Committee, which of course determines your bonus, if any, your raise, if any, your future, if any. And that was it.

And so, one year, the review committee said, "One of our partners said that you need a class in remedial writing." Now Tony, you know me, I love to write and I've been writing forever. So I'm told I need a class in remedial writing. And I said, "Can you tell me who offered this input?" And they said, "Well, why do you want to know?" And I said, totally, honestly I said, "So that I can improve."

And so they told me, the attorney, Stan. So I went to Stan, who by the way, had given me an assignment 10 months earlier, had not given me any work since then. So I went back to Stan and I said, "Hey, I understand I need some work on my writing. Can you give me some input?" And he said, "Well, it's a while ago. I don't quite remember the details, but what you did wasn't what I needed." Okay, now is that helpful input? But I was motivated. I wanted to show this blankety-blank that I could write.

So I knew there was a senior associate that worked with Stan, and I went to her and I said, "Can you share an example of the kind of writing that he likes?" And she did. And it was essentially a glorified outline. And at the time, perhaps I was a little bit influenced by writers like Joyce and Faulkner and Proust. And there was maybe too many words and so forth. But once I saw this outline, I said, "Okay, I got this." So I went back to Stan. I said, "Hey, I've been working on my writing. Can I have another opportunity?" To his credit, he gave me an opportunity. So I did the research, and then when it came to the writing, I laid it on thick. I mean, this was not a vertical writing, it was a horizontal writing.

There were so many subparts, Roman numeral one. A, I had to look them up. Now, outcome. He became my number one champion and my number one advocate for partnership years later. So much so that I moved up a floor when an office was open adjacent to his. So is that a success story? Is that a happy ending story, or does it make you shake your head about performance reviews? Because I'll confess to you, my motives weren't entirely pure. When I went to all that trouble, I wanted to show this blankety-blank that I knew how to write. So I don't know, but that was an early personal experience with the annual performance review.

Tony Lee: He certainly motivated you, didn't he?

Jathan Janove: Well, you can make that case. But I don't think most people would respond that way.

Tony Lee: Yeah. And if you look at what we have been writing and our focus on performance review improvement, everyone seems to agree that not only is the annual review outdated, but frankly, so are quarterly reviews, that the idea is there should be ongoing discussions, whether it's weekly or every other week, between managers and their reports, with a goal of helping the person improve and achieve their own career goals. Does that make sense to you?

Jathan Janove: Absolutely. My biggest thing is no surprises. A thing that I'm passionate about is helping people have tough conversations as early as possible, and doing it in a way that doesn't deter them from the future, but it encourages them, that when there's an issue, don't let it fester. Don't save it up, address it.

Tony Lee: So if you're thinking about HRs responsibility in all of this, I have to believe it's in training the managers to conduct reviews more effectively, right?

Jathan Janove: Well, I would start with empowerment. See, I think senior leaders, okay, C-suite, CEO make a huge mistake when they view HR as a stay out of court entity, a compliance entity. I think if the CEO, the board of directors, if they view HR in the way that maximizes HR ROI, they look at it as these are culture stewards. And if they're culture stewards, yes, we'll stay out of court. We won't have a whole bunch of legal things. So one of the things I try to say to CEOs or boards is, don't look at HR as compliance, look at HR as culture. And I think this performance review conversation relates directly to it.

Tony Lee: And as part of that then, as part of the culture, that's helping managers understand how to conduct reviews more effectively?

Jathan Janove: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Tony Lee: Okay, so let's dive in a little bit more. One of the problems that employees often cite, usually back to HR about performance reviews, is that they feel like their manager is biased in one way or another. Now, it might be unconscious bias for sure, but it's a bias nonetheless. For example, women and older workers often receive lower ratings for potential, research shows. And there's new kinds of biases, there's proximity bias. Now that you have folks working remotely, they don't get grades as good as those who are seen every day by the boss in the office. And recency bias, meaning someone who worked on a project lately is going to do well compared or better compared to someone who has just been doing their job and hasn't done anything exceptional. So how does HR help managers get rid of these biases when they're trying to help employees improve?

Jathan Janove: Full disclosure, there's also another bias, which is confirmation bias, meaning okay, they say that I didn't meet expectations, but instead of looking self reflectively, I say, maybe it's an external unfair cause. So there's another bias in this mix, confirmation bias, which tends to make people disinclined to take ownership of their own behavior, which really makes it complicated.

Tony Lee: Yeah. So given all these biases, how can managers be trained to rid themselves of these?

Jathan Janove: Regular ongoing communication. I think that's really what it comes down to. Regular ongoing communication and not relying on a system that suggests or incents you to save it up. Don't save it up. Ongoing, regular. As a coach, and I'm a former lawyer, I'm now a coach is, the more regular and ongoing the communication is, the better the results. To have a great employee, that employee asked to have the ability to say to himself or herself, "Well, maybe I can do things better."

So when I submit a column to you and you come back to me with, "Well, Jathan, I don't think this quite works for this reason." If I get defensive or I say, "Tony's against me because I have long hair," or whatever, I'm not taking ownership. I'm not taking ownership. So where is Tony coming from? So you want those kind of relationships where they're truly goal oriented. What can we do to make this work for both of us?

Speaking for personal experience, Tony, there's been a number of times they say, "Well, how about this instead?" And you go, "Okay, Jathan, that works." And so that's what you're looking for, I think, in a manager employee relationship, an ongoing exchange, which can include where the employee feels safe to say to the manager, "You might be missing something, boss." And instead of being retaliated against, the boss listens, "Tell me more. What is it I'm missing?" And is open to it.

Tony Lee: So traditionally, a lot of managers use a crutch when they're thinking about performance reviews, and the crutch typically are goals. They'll set performance goals with each employee beginning of the year, beginning of the month, whenever it is, and then they measure progress against those goals. Do you think that's still a sound strategy?

Jathan Janove: No.

Tony Lee: Okay. How come?

Jathan Janove: Well, I work with a fair number of folks in the engineering world where they try to reduce it to metrics, everything to metrics. And what I say to them is, human beings aren't metrics. And they're not truly rational characters. I'm not saying they're irrational, but let's just say they're non-rational. They're relationship based. And if you try to engineer a relationship, metrically speaking, it's just never going to achieve its potential. Does that mean metrics don't count? You don't measure? No. But it's the paradigm, it's what you start with. And so what I say is start with human relationship, don't start with metrics. Don't start with How can I engineer this relationship?

Tony Lee: All right, so I'm going to play devil's advocate here. We've got an awful lot of employees who are hourly workers. They're measured by, do they show up on time, how many widgets do they create, those types of things. So rating systems are pretty integral to measuring their performance. I understand the need to work with people as fellow humans. But fellow humans have excuses. Fellow humans have have many reasons why they didn't perform the way the manager would've liked them to. So how would you advise the manager to handle that?

Jathan Janove: Well, okay, so let's say that hourly worker shows up at 8:10. Shift begins at eight. You don't save that for a review. You have a conversation. You say, "Hey, Jim, Sarah, it's 8:10. Your shift begins at eight. What happened?" And that's it. You don't save that for the review, quarterly or whatever interval. You have that direct person to person conversation. It's not, "I'm going to beat up on you," it's, "Hey, we need you here at eight. It's 8:10. Talk to me." So that's the other thing I would say, Tony, is the review should never be a substitute for realtime communication. It can be a summary, but never a substitute.

Tony Lee: All right. So what about pay discussions? Should that happen at the time of reviews, or should that be completely separately handled?

Jathan Janove: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. And I'll cite the New York Times bestselling author, Daniel Pink, but also from my own experience, don't cloud the relationship with money. Absolutely not.

When you're talking about how is this person doing, how is this relationship going, do not include money. Put it someplace else. Base it on something else. Whatever you do, do not tie money to a performance review.

Tony Lee: And the number one reason why is?

Jathan Janove: Because it dehumanizes the process. It skews it in a way that isn't relationship building. And I could go back to my lawyer days about how tying money to performance reviews, let's just say was great for the legal profession, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's good for the company or the organization. So no, I'm very, very adamant of separate pay from performance discussions.

Tony Lee: So one last thing I want to ask you about. So Marcus Buckingham at ADP says that every single person alive today is a horribly unreliable rater of other human beings. So that raises the question, would reviews be a candidate for AI automation?

Jathan Janove: Absolutely not.

Tony Lee: No. Because you're taking a humanistic approach, the last thing you want is automation telling people how they're doing.

Jathan Janove: Absolutely not. And my modification to what Marcus says is, humans aren't necessarily irrational, they're just non-rational. Meaning, if you can give them some structure, some, okay, let's talk about this, this, and this, then you can actually have a productive conversation. That's my experience. That's what I continue to experience in my coaching consulting world, is let's create a framework recognizing you're not a purely irrational creature, I'm not a purely rational creature. So let's figure out a way for us to interact in a win-win way. So that would be my partial agreement and partial disagreement with what Marcus has to say.

Tony Lee: Very good.

Well, that is going to have to do it for today's episode of All Things Work. A big thank you to Jathan Janove for sharing his insights on performance reviews and what we can do to try and improve them. Before we get out of here, I want to encourage everyone to follow All Things Work wherever you listen to podcasts. Also, listener reviews have a real impact on a podcast's visibility. So if you enjoyed today's episode, please take a moment to leave a review and help others find the show. Finally, you can find all of our episodes on our website at Thanks for listening, and we'll catch you next time on All Things Work.

Speaker 1: Every leader wants their employees to live and work happily ever after. Thankfully, you don't need a magic wand or a fairy godmother to make that dream come true. HR, payroll and workforce management solutions from UKG give you the tools you need to support and celebrate all of your people. Now, you can make your fairytale workplace a reality, with UKG.