When Evaluating Performance, Perfect Is Not a Worthwhile Goal

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My youngest started fifth grade last week, and as I was combing through the official forms and literature, making sure he had all his school supplies and such, I happened upon the grading system:

  • A+ 99-100
  • A 95-98
  • A- 93-94
  • B+ 91-92
  • B 87-90
  • B- 85-86
  • C+ 83-84
  • C 79-82
  • C- 77-78
  • D+ 75-76
  • D 72-74
  • D- 70-71
  • F 69 and under

What? Since when is a 92 a B? Or an 84 a C? And a 76 is a D??

High standards, or just smoke and mirrors?

What the heck is happening here? I suppose two plus two no longer equals four, either? (Or at least it feels that way.)

I asked a friend who works with various schools in our district, “What’s up with these grading schedules? When I was a student, a 90 was an A, and an 80 was a B, period. That’s not good enough anymore?”

She explained to me that if schools want to stay competitive, they have to show their students are meeting high standards, which includes 92 B’s and 84 C’s. I told her I thought the whole thing was ridiculous, and it felt like smoke and mirrors, too.

Plus, are kids getting any smarter because of it? My vote would be no.

Mostly, however, the exchange reminded me of one of the most exasperating conversations I’d ever had with a manager about performance reviews.

Jumping through hoops

This manager and I were discussing the company’s new evaluation forms, which required managers to rate each employee overall as “With Distinction,” “Proficient,” “Meets Standard,” or “Needs Improvement.” So far so good.

But the manager had a problem. He refused to rate any of his employees “With Distintion,” because that would mean (in his opinion) that he viewed the employee as perfect, and nobody’s perfect.

How dumb.

I tried to convince the manager that if an employee had distinguished herself she deserved a rating that reflected her accomplishments, and doing so wasn’t declaring her “perfect” but as simply distinguished among her peers. I reminded him that the company had set the standard, and it needed to be attainable. A standard impossible to attain served no useful purpose to anyone and was demoralizing as hell to boot, I said.

He didn’t buy it. He also wasn’t moved by the accompanying definition of “distinguished performance,” which did not reference flawlessness.

(By the way, when this manager received his own “perfect” rating, he accepted it with nary a peep, and I know he wasn’t stupid enough to think he was perfect.)

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When a “high” standard backfires

Turning B’s to C’s and A’s to B’s isn’t exactly expecting kids to walk on water before giving them a nod, but it’s close.

Bottom line: Students have to work harder to get the same reward, and to what end? If not enough students do well enough to make the school look good enough, the powers that be will lower the curve anyway.

I’m 100 percent for high standards, and I definitely want kids to learn, but I’m not sure this method meets that end.

In the same vein, taking an employee’s efforts for granted such that you won’t acknowledge superior performance out of some ridiculous notion that no one is perfect, well, it’s just another way of not rewarding good performance — and that’s absurd and counterproductive.

It’s also another good reason to have someone objective — like a skilled HR professional — review the evaluations to make sure all the parts combine into a coherent whole.

Perfect is not a worthwhile goal

Given the high cost and competition for decent education in this country (sad), I’m all but certain the trend toward more stringent (if ineffective) grading schedules isn’t going away anytime soon, and most of us don’t have any control over that.

However, many of you reading this piece have a good deal of control over the way performance evaluations are conducted in your organization. (I didn’t, but then again I had one of those terrible HR jobs. I’m hoping yours isn’t.)

Use that control to encourage managers to view stellar performance as something less than perfect, which is perfectly OK.Performance

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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5 Comments on “When Evaluating Performance, Perfect Is Not a Worthwhile Goal

  1. Although not explictly the point of the column, one of the biggest problems with performance management is inconsistent ratings across managers. ‘Proficient’ can mean very different things to individual managers.

    The only solution — and its not perfect — is to define the performance that warrants a ‘with distinction’ or ‘needs improvment’ so the terms are used more consistently.

  2. Went to Private School all my life. 10-Point grading scales (and for that matter, curves) came as a surprise when I got to college.

  3. The points of argument you present are perfectly cogent and logical, based on the common sense needs of the organization and human psychology. I, too, have had discussions on these points over the years with many leaders who didn’t get it. I think most often the debate is between the use of absolute and relative standards in evaluation. When perfection is the absolute standard, no one meets the mark. But organizationally, this presents a big challenge when relative standards can’t be adopted to distinguish top performers from the rest of the pack. This opens the door for employee decisions about pay, rewards, promotions, etc., to be made on the basis of favoritism.

  4. I find that one of the biggest issues with performance ratings is that no one wants to be average. Because of that, managers shy away from giving average ratings. The result is that higher ratings do not mean what they should. If your highest rating is perfect and your average rating is perceived as not good, then everyone ends up in the middle and their is no distinction in performance.

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