Sunday, March 3, 2013

Objectivity in Performance Appraisal - Myth or Reality?

It was a week back. The setup and the occasion were just perfect.  The end of the FY was a month away and it was time for the ceremonial quarterly meeting with the management team. While there were several glaring issues to be tabled, we the facilitators decided to revolve the discussion on the kernel of People Management – Performance Management. Thus began the discussion on the purpose of the appraisal exercise, proposed design and methodology. The debate primarily gyrated around performance metrics and guidelines for objectively rating the performance of the members. That is when one of the members quipped, “Objectivity in Performance Appraisals is impossible”. This statement struck me and kept me thinking for several days. This also questioned the very philosophy of effective performance management systems.
Performance Management has always been amongst the prime challenges and key result areas of HR folks. As goes the clichéd – “What can’t be measured can’t be managed”, measuring performance of employees across the organization continues to be the challenge facing HR professionals not because performance metrics are not laid out but because of the perpetual and systemic conflict between objectivity and subjectivity. While measuring and apprising employees of their performance, we ensure that each appraiser is educated on how to be objective. Several performance appraisal techniques like BARS (Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale), MBO (Management by Objectives), (90+X)’ Feedback and others have been introduced to minimize the subjectivity or the bias factor and enhance the overall objectivity of the appraisal system. However, none of these systems can ensure 100% objectivity even with their bias-reduction focused designs. The concern or issue is not with the objective or design of these systems but with folks handling these. Systems themselves cannot speak for themselves and say – ‘Hey, you are not rating your employee objectively and in an unbiased manner’. Also, because systems are not handled by systems but by humans who are inherently subject to bias. Another shortcoming is that we don’t tend to rate the ‘Absolute Best’ but the ‘Relative Best’ because the definition of ‘Absolute Best’ can vary.
The thought is not to portray a pessimist and grim picture of performance appraisal mechanisms but accepting the limitations and doing every bit to win over them. Today, I can lay guidelines for my project managers and say – ‘Buddy, this is how you should rate your employees and this is what each performance measure means’ but still can’t be sure of a bias/error free system. Even the best of scientific instruments have a defined ‘margin of error’. Here we are talking of humans with a set of notions, perceptions, interactions, emotions and interpretations which influence their judgments. We cannot ask people to keep their set of emotions, individuality and perceptions aside in a basket or ask them to take an ‘oath to be fair and true’ and then single mindedly rate the employees.
Objectivity in performance management is the ultimate goal but can we still be sure that we can eliminate subjectivity. Being a hardcore HR professional, I would like to negate and question each person’s mindset who thinks like the member mentioned earlier. However, it makes me think if doing that would be really objective or it’s a one-off subjective thought or perception and must be brushed off. The focus should however be to propel objectivity while minimizing subjectivity.

I would like to believe that we can strive and do our bit to reduce subjectivity but we cannot nullify it till there are inherent factors –emotional, social, and behavioral, etc., affecting people decisions. As HR folks, the focus should be on enabling and empowering managers with tools, techniques and training for effectively managing employee performance. Whatever the limitations, the destination should be clear. Pave the way and Lead. 

Last thoughts…
Achieving objectivity in performance appraisals is not a Myth; however we are still far from Reality.


  1. I've been reading a lot about the philosophy of performance management, and I must say I really enjoyed your post. Looking forward to reading more of your blog.

  2. Such an interesting article! Subject close to my heart. I think that we are dealing with the issue of lack of management training in a so many ways. We do have managers who are often good at their operational roles, but lack people skills. They may be good at motivating or "managing" their teams in order to have projects accomplished but are unable to separate their personal opinions about their team members from the pure professional aspect of it. And one could argue that the ability to make a human connection is a must for a team manager. However, the need for and ability to disconnect oneself from the individual as a person vs. an employee or professional is crucial for impartiality in performance appraisals. We also have to learn to shut off personal feelings. Who says that a manager can never feel threatened by a sharp subordinate, for example? Objectivity is our goal. Such can be an acquired process and is a learning process. Where we fail as HR professionals is in having/taking the time to train our managers towards reaching that goal. It cannot be obtained within a few days or weeks from "producing" the appraisal data. We do spot "predictive" signs during the course of the year: managers can be too "friendly" or the opposite, or they can make HR-"unsettling" personal remarks about staff members, among other things... That's when we, as HR, need to start acting. Other issues are/can be at stake such as how our managers are chosen, but that is another subject. Overall, excellent post!! Achieving objectivity is NOT a myth, and yes, we have a long way to go.

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