Good, or Really Good?

For children, there is back to school, Christmas, and summer break. These annual events bring back memories of the past, and expectations for the future. Sometimes anticipated, other times thrust upon them, the children re-trace the events of the given season…shopping for school supplies and new clothes, exchanging holiday gifts and heading to the pool. As adults, annual events have morphed to tax time, spring cleaning, and winterizing of the sprinklers. Somehow these events are less anticipated and more misery than merriment. Corporately, we experience similar annual events, from annual benefits enrollment and adjustments, to the annual performance reviews.

Ahhh…annual review time… it is the manager’s most dreaded period on the corporate calendar. As review time approaches, managers start to sweat as they realize their headcount and tally up the number of essays they have to write. Of course, there are some guidelines one must follow when preparing reviews. First, any negative reviews will require a significant amount of additional work by the manager. A sub-par rating will automatically kick in a series of dictated procedures to be performed by the manager to right the situation (obviously, if the employee is getting a low rating it is due to poor management). Second, low ratings hurt morale more than good ratings improve morale. Third, managers themselves are reviewed. The performance of their employees is a reflection of their management abilities – usually under the category “Staffing”, “Team Building” or “Talent Development”. And finally, communicating bad reviews can be uncomfortable.

As a result of these realities, many managers, go the way of the electron, and take the easiest path. That is, they simply write nice stuff and give good ratings to all their employees. (This usually begins after a manager’s first year experiencing the full wrath of the human resource review tax.). The result is rating inflation. This volley by the managers launches the ball back in the court of the human resources department (HR). In true Wimbledon fashion, HR swings back with a series of strokes that keep the ball in play. The first response is to change the ratings systems from letters to numbers (or from numbers to letters) – this gives the appearance that something is being done to address rating inflation. In fact this does nothing to change the ratings. This is the way a 5 point scale works: Do not give the lowest two ratings because they require additional work (plans, tracking reports etc). Since being average is a dig to an employee, 3’s are only given to indicate sub-par performance. A “4” is better than average and still allows for the “5” to be given for outstanding performance. So almost everyone gets a 4 rating. This system is thrown out for being too quantitative.

The next step in the rating evolution is to change to a qualitative system... aka... the “vowel rating system”. In this system, employees are rated as (O) for outstanding, (E) for effective, (U) for under-perform, or (I) for incompetent….No…Wait…I think it was (O) for overrated, (E) for excellent, (I) for incredible and (A) for awful. Or was it (A) for awesome… Anyway, this confusing system is ultimately thrown out in favor of simplicity. The ratings are reduced to simply “Bad” or “Good” (of course no one will rate anyone Bad, so it is quickly changed to Good and Really Good.). And, to stay one step ahead of those lazy managers, a rule is set to limit “Really Good” ratings to 10% of the staff. Unfortunately, managers now have to turn away “Really Good” recruits to maintain their allotment. Instead they are forced to hunt for duds. Hmmm…I wonder if anyone in HR would like to transfer….