This is the third article in a series of three about performance reviews.
We asked six Canadians to tell us about their best and worst performance-review experiences. Good or bad, each story has a lesson.
Kate Hays, sports psychologist and founder of the Performing Edge consulting practice in Toronto: Earlier in her career, Dr. Hays conducted reviews using a five-point scale to measure performance. The supervisor and the employee would both write out their numbers and then compare assessments.
“There was someone who I thought was just terrific, so I had rated that person as 1 to 2, while they rated themselves as 4 to 5,” Dr. Hays says. “I was totally baffled. I thought maybe this person has no self-esteem whatsoever. We had a very painful conversation until I finally realized that we each had different endpoints. I thought that 1 was really good and 5 really bad, but the other person had interpreted it the opposite way. Now whenever I’m doing anything with a rating scale, I always mention what the two endpoints are. That experience had a long-lasting effect on me.”
Mike Harwood, human resources director at Deeley Harley-Davidson Canada, distributor for Harley-Davidson and Buell motorcycles: Mr. Harwood’s worst-case scenario started with a tense misunderstanding. The individual under review was convinced that she was part of the solution rather than the problem. It took a few minutes to get through to her.
“She was in denial,” Mr. Harwood says. “I was very specific in my observations of her behaviours and actions that were of concern to me, and could provide specific examples. I discussed with her how she could have done things differently, and we set up a formal follow-up process. The key was to treat the situation as a positive ‘performance improvement’ plan, rather than as a negative ‘corrective action’ plan. Keeping things positive, while maintaining focus on the improvements that needed to be made, gave her the confidence to be successful.”
There was a happy ending. After months of concerted effort, the employee got a promotion.
Mike McDerment, CEO and co-founder of FreshBooks, a Toronto-based online invoicing, time and expense application: A couple of years ago, Mr. McDerment
delivered a review to one of his senior managers. “As a serial entrepreneur, I’ve never worked for anyone else, so this manager was far more experienced than me. I found myself in the uncomfortable position of giving him a ‘review.’ To overcome this, I invested heavily in the review process, and probably spent eight hours interviewing people and collecting feedback, then two hours distilling it down to the 12-or-so items I wanted this person to think about.
“When I delivered the review, the manager loved the specific stories from his teammates that made each point ‘real.’ But I really knew I nailed it because the manager pinned his review on his fridge at home. While most of the review was positive, not all of it was, but it all rang true to him. It says a lot about his character and desire to improve himself.”
Harvey Carroll, president and company partner of Grip Limited, a Toronto-based advertising firm: Mr. Carroll believes that the best performance reviews are the ones with no surprises and where tangible actions are proposed.
“Many years ago my direct manager came well prepared with specific examples to support both his positive and negative feedback of me,” Mr. Carroll says. “The specific examples allowed the conversation to be about the work and to not feel like an assessment of me personally. We were able to build a robust development plan with specific actions that I could use as a learning agenda for the following year.
“The review was constructive and left me feeling like my manager was on my side. He was clear that I owned the plan and he was there to support as required.
“When reviewing my team, I always remember this one positive review and try to model my approach after it.”
Alan Kearns, career coach and founder of CareerJoy, a career coaching company based in Ottawa and Toronto: Mr. Kearns recounts a scenario concerning a client and a micro-managing boss.
“As part of a performance review, you’re often asked to give your side of your performance and to write that down, and then your boss gives their side and writes it down,” explains Mr. Kearns. “Then they’ll ask you to sign off on the performance review with any comment. This particular boss stood at the person’s desk overlooking his shoulder, and then essentially crafted the employee’s response to the review and wouldn’t leave his desk until that was done.
“He just followed her dictation and signed it, but he was really angry afterward. He did it because he felt he didn’t have any options and was feeling under incredible pressure by this manager. It certainly devalued the whole process.”
Ava Abbott, founder of Slingshot Communication, a Toronto design company that specializes in product packaging: Ms. Abbott was 32 years old when she went in for her annual review in the company where she was working.
“They started telling me how happy they were with me and offered me a $3,000 raise,” Ms. Abbott says. “I said nothing. They bumped it up to $5,000. I said nothing and they kept telling me how great I was. I ended up walking out of there with a $10,000 raise. I would have been perfectly happy with the first offer, but they just kept talking.”
Ms. Abbott doesn’t use performance reviews in her company.