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HR Leadership Column

Ignore the Noise

HR leaders will always hear complaints about the dreaded performance-appraisal process -- mostly because of managerial discomfort with providing honest feedback to direct reports. Ensuring managers are able to provide criticism, when necessary, is more important than redesigning forms.

Monday, November 1, 2010
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As 2010 edges toward a New Year, many companies are finishing up their annual performance-appraisal cycle. Reviews are in, and goals for 2011 are set.

Of course, there's no shortage of available performance-management programs to be used. Lots of consultants and software vendors sell products and services they swear will make the process painless. And it's helped many.

Sometimes the appraisal process is linked directly to compensation decisions. Sometimes pay is kept completely separate, in the hopes of keeping the conversation focused on performance issues.

Regardless of what performance-management program is used, the goal should always be an appraisal process that ensures employees know where they stand -- how they performed against expectations and what the expectations will be going forward.

Performance management should also allow company leaders to be more familiar with the organization's talent -- and recognize its talent gaps. Armed with the knowledge gained during the review process, goals and individual-development plans can be refined; succession plans can be reviewed and amended; and exit plans can be developed and deployed. The organization becomes more competitive.

Unfortunately, for many companies, the annual performance-appraisal process is equivalent to an organizational root canal, with HR being blamed for causing the pain.

People complain about the appraisal form -- digital or paper -- as being too cumbersome or too simplistic.

Managers scream at their HR departments about meeting deadlines for completion, and the impossibility of rating their direct reports as anything less than above average.

And when money is involved, managers either want extra money for the merit pool or threaten to spread the pool like peanut butter across everyone, arguing they have no other choice since everyone on their team is equally talented.

The stress of the process is only exacerbated in a down economy, where many employees are working twice as hard for the same or less money. Sound familiar?

But let's be honest here, folks. Most of the turmoil is really not generated because of the administrivia associated with the performance-management process. The turmoil comes from managers' individual and collective discomfort with giving their direct reports the gift of feedback.

Especially in the United States, where a core value of citizenship is that we're all created equal, it's often difficult for managers to feel equipped to provide criticism, no matter how deserved it may be.

Managers know they can't complain about this responsibility of management and be considered a good manager -- they've read management books or taken Management 101 classes. In their hearts, they know they have to do it. Indeed, they themselves want feedback.

So, instead, they vent their discomfort by focusing on the process and complaining about HR. After all, it's HR that's responsible for ensuring an evaluation process is in place and used effectively.

What does this mean for HR leaders? Isn't it a transactional piece of HR, not a leadership piece?

How could the most administratively tedious responsibility of the HR role involve the notion of HR leadership?

Well, I think it takes HR leadership and resolve to resist the temptation to be drawn into debates about the administrivia of performance management each year.

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HR has a leadership role in ensuring that whatever the process is, it leads to desired, measurable outcomes that help the organization. HR executives shouldn't allow themselves to get dragged into time-consuming debates about issues such as the forms being used, the rating scale or the mechanics.

I'm not saying that HR shouldn't listen to the feedback and seek to improve the value of the review process for the organization. I'm speaking about the "noise" that always surrounds the performance-management process.

The simple truth is that there is no perfect performance-management process -- it's the Holy Grail of HR. There will always be criticism about any performance-management process from someone in the organization. It just goes with the territory for HR executives.

And if HR is spending excessive time and energy to continuously react to complaints by changing the form or process, then it isn't spending time on what's important. Time spent on debating details of the process is time taken away from what should be the real focus of HR's efforts: ensuring that managers are comfortable and competent to give employees honest feedback on a regular basis, which will allow employees to improve their performance and add more value to the enterprise.

We need to resist the impulse to become defensive when the inevitable complaints about the process begin to be heard, and instead, demonstrate leadership by focusing our attention and the attention of the organization on the broader goals being sought via the process -- executives and managers who increase productivity and profitability because they've been provided with useful feedback on a regular basis. Ignore the noise.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

 

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