Performance Appraisals Gone Wild

Performance appraisals are a great idea usually badly implemented. Early in my career a new Head of HR showed up and implemented a complete overhaul of HR not only without input from the rest of the company but with no transparency as to what the new HR systems were. Then the time came for performance appraisals and the madness began. On a 1 to 5 scale we were instructed that 3 was good, 4 was excellent and nobody should get a 5.

I diligently went through the appraisals with my team and submitted them to HR. They requested a meeting. Present at the meeting were the Department Head of HR, we’ll call him Rajesh, and a mid-level HR person who we’ll call Asha. Finally there was a Divisional Head present who had nothing to do with HR. We’ll call him Simon. I was a Divisional Head.

So, now that we set the scene, Asha of all people opens the discussion. The company wide performance average was a little over 3 and the average for my division was well above 4. HR felt that this was not fair. The tremor in her voice belied her nervousness. Quoting a well known joke (later immortalised in a Dilbert cartoon) I asked if Asha wanted me to reduce my team’s scores or their actual performance. Nobody laughed. It was going to be one of those meetings. Once Asha outlined the reason that we were meeting everybody’s role became clear. Simon was the executive I was closest to in the company and his role was to ensure that I did not point out the absurdity of HR’s request. Poor Asha was there because even if I did not outline the logical faults in HR’s argument I was clearly going to defend my appraisals and Rajesh preferred to have a subordinate bear the brunt of the argument. I despise cowards like that. Executives are meant to protect their subordinates not the other way around.

My first priority was to remove Asha from the line of fire and put the cross hairs firmly where they belonged, on Rajesh. I did that directly by telling Rajesh that the discussion was between us and I had no interest going through a third party especially as he was sitting in the room. The next point of order was to introduce some logic. Well, at least I tried to. I explained that it is actually not a mathematical requirement that the average of each division / department to equal the company average. My introduction of statistics into the conversation was received with suspicion and quite a bit of hostility by Rajesh. Asha was visibly shaking. Simon was fighting to keep the grin off his face.

I tried formal logic. Shouldn’t we first look at the actual performance of the team as a whole and relate that to the numerical score before we go comparing with other departments? With some encouragement Rajesh nodded once or twice and I took that as an agreement.

“So,” I asked “what performance do you think was scored incorrectly?” After much shuffling of papers and mumbling Rajesh admitted that he had not bothered to read the details of the performance appraisals, he was simply not happy that the average for my division was higher than the company average. Maybe Rajesh felt it wasn’t tidy. Asha’s eyes were rolling back into her head. Simon had gone bright red biting down on his laughter.

I asked Rajesh to consider two achievements of my division. The first was that we were responsible for 50% of the increase in profit for that year. The second was that we had raised one third of the new funding for the company that year. Rajesh’s first response was since my division did not have a funding target then according to the rules the one third of new funding did not count towards my division’s performance. To be clear, this represented 10% of total funding the company had. It was clear that we had entered deep into the Twilight Zone. Poor Asha’s mind had clearly had enough and had now taken her to her happy place. Simon had tears coming down his face.

I could not understand why Rajesh, an intelligent person, was behaving in an irrational manner. Worse, he was backing himself ever deeper into a corner and had raised his defensive shields to the maximum level: Bureaucratic. There simply is no winning when the person you are negotiating with shuts down mentally. So I suggested to Rajesh that the only way forward was for the CEO to appraise my personal performance and since that is effectively an appraisal for the whole team we would adjust the average team score, up or down, to match my appraisal. Rajesh agreed.

The CEO appraised my performance even higher than the team average. Rajesh refused to honour our agreement. I truly wish that I could find some lesson to learn. I cannot. At best all that I can say is that there will be times when you find yourself in the middle of insanity. The best one can do in the face of such a situation is to be the bigger person and soldier on.