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Abolishing Performance Appraisals

Linking: Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What to Do Instead
Authors: Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins
Paperback: 360 pages
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers; 2Rev Ed edition (September 9, 2002)
ISBN-10: 1576752003 
Book Review:


What might have happened if W. Edwards Deming had linked up with an organization development expert (say, Peter Block) to discuss the topic of performance appraisal? For good measure, throw in an employment lawyer to address the legal issues involved with appraisal. One result might have been the present book on performance appraisal. If you are reading this review, there is a pretty high likelihood that you will be provoked by this book. Some of you will like it; some of you will hate it. Many HR professional's primary recommendation is that you don't ignore it. This is not another "pebble on the pile" project. The authors are completely serious in their intent to abolish performance appraisals. This may feel like an affront or a slap in the face to I-O psychologists. However, this book is too well crafted to dismiss. These are not the rantings of "kooky" academics who have never been inside a business organization. Neither do the authors rely solely on their experiences, without linkages to the relevant literature.

Coens is an employment lawyer who also lists himself as a trainer, public speaker, and educator. Jenkins has been a consultant since 1993. Before that, she worked at General Motors, ending up as the Director of Salaried Personnel for GM-Powertrain, where she worked with Dr. Deming in changing their appraisal practices. Both authors have taught as adjunct faculty in the School of Labor and Industrial Relations at Michigan State University. In addition to this book, the authors also wrote a chapter on "Systems approaches to human resource management" for a recent HRM textbook.

The book is organized into three parts. Part I is entitled, Why appraisals backfire: The fatal flaws. Chapter 1 starts with a definition: "The practice of performance appraisal is a mandated process in which, for a specified period of time, all or a group of employees' work performance, behaviors, or traits are individually rated, judged, or described by a person other than the rated employee and the results are kept by the organization." Although seemingly innocuous, this statement contains many of the issues they claim make appraisal "hopelessly flawed," and which they challenge in the remainder of the book. A basic point is that the underlying assumptions behind most appraisal practices make it impossible for appraisals to accomplish their intended purposes. 

In Chapter 2, it is argued that the real goal should be to improve the performance of the organization, whereas the underlying assumption behind most appraisal practices is that improving individual performance will necessarily improve organizational performance. Relying on Deming and the quality movement, they argue that, in most cases, it is the system and not the individual that is the cause of performance problems. 

In Chapter 3, the authors challenge the ability of any appraisal system (or appraisers) to rate others with complete accuracy. Rater errors and the political pressures on both raters and those being rated are presented.

Part II contains the heart of the book. It is entitled, What to do instead: Five functions of appraisal. Chapters 4 to 8 address coaching, feedback, pay, staffing/promotions, and legal issues, respectively. Their basic argument is against mandated and formal linkages between appraisals and each of these functions. They reject the notion that a "one-size-fits all" approach will work both for various employees, but also for the multiple purposes for which appraisals are used. Chapter 8 then argues that, for the majority of employees, appraisals are not legally required. Organizations are urged to collect the required documentation for discipline and discharge situations on an as-needed basis, but without linking these efforts to a formalized (and universal) appraisal system.

Part III is entitled, How to get there: The transition to alternatives. Sixteen steps for designing and implementing a change strategy are spelled out in the final two chapters. (Jenkins' OD training and experience is evident here.) They state that there is no set procedure or "new forms" that can be utilized across organizations to disconnect appraisal from the necessary HR practices they have already described. They write, "If you want genuine, lasting success in transforming to a workplace culture without appraisal, you must roll up your sleeves, gather a team of passionate people, and do the hard work of designing with a clean sheet of paper."

Twelve case studies are included in the book. The book ends with a brief conclusion, a collection of the bullet points found in the book concerning "what to do instead," and some interesting quotes from other authors on performance appraisal. An extensive and useful list of "further readings and resources" is provided, in addition to 12 pages and some 185 endnotes to support statements and figures found in the book.

This book is written primarily for practitioners. In the preface, Coens and Jenkins write, "We have deliberately de-emphasized the technical and academic aspects, leaving that for others who, hopefully, will join us on this exciting and adventurous new path." What I find intriguing, however, is how very familiar many references will be to readers of this journal (e.g., Atwater, Bernardin, Chao, Cleveland, Deci, Greenberg, Kozlowski, Murphy). To be sure, there are also numerous references to what the authors refer to as emergent models and thinkers (e.g., Covey, Block, Senge, Wheatley, Zohar). Indeed, one of the more fascinating portions of the text for me was the contrast drawn between the "emergent thinking" (empowerment, teams, respecting diversity, and systems focus) and typical appraisal practices (forced, individual, one-size-fits all, and improving the parts).

After over 80 years of efforts to improve the scales and training and practices pertaining to performance appraisal, it shouldn't be surprising that a book has been written that in effect says "End it, don't mend it!" (my apologies to former President Clinton). The biggest disappointment with this book is that it leaves us with a processchar124 and a relatively lengthy one at that. That is, the authors suggest that each organization needs to work out the "alternatives" to appraisal for itself. I think this is realistic, and it is better than if they were ready to sell a "hot new product" to replace existing appraisal systems. Nevertheless, it's not terribly satisfying in terms of spelling out where we go from here.

My other quibbles with the book are as follows. First, despite its clear relevance, the OB literature on fairness has been overlooked as a support for the authors' arguments. 

Second, the chapter on coaching contains the following: "Just about every how-to book on managing people proclaims goal setting as an essential tool for individual coaching. Rarely, however, are the checkerboard results of goal-setting research acknowledged." Such an unreferenced statement is more than a little puzzling, as this doesn't square with the volumes of supportive research on this topic. 

Third, in the chapter on staffing and promotions, the authors argue that "under federal EEO laws in the U.S., an employer must demonstrate reliability and validity if it uses appraisal as a test or criterion for promotion selections and other staffing decisions." However, my research on court cases where performance appraisal was an issue revealed that validity and validation efforts were almost never mentioned in written court decisions; that is, out of 308 Courts of Appeals decisions over a 15-year period, validation was mentioned nine times. What judges did notice was agreement among multiple raterschar124 one of the very "alternatives" recommended by Coens and Jenkins. My point is primarily that appraisal systems could be a stronger legal defense for organizationschar124 if organizations would follow the best practices that have already been recommended.

That said, I recommend this book to both practitioners and academics. I expect it to provoke some strong reactions. I am going to use it as the text on performance appraisal for an MBA course on staffing and appraisal. Although this book will certainly not be the last word on performance appraisal, it has something important to say about what healthy organizations should look like. I think the conversation will be enriched considerably if readers of this journal joined the debate concerning howchar124 or whetherchar124 individual appraisal practices can be a part of the newer organizational structures and managerial practices currently being promoted.

~Cited from Werner, Jon M.. Personnel Psychology, Winter2001, Vol. 54 Issue 4, p1030-1034.

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