The Ladder

Performance Reviews Don’t Work. Can an App Fix Them? 

Swipe right to rate your employee’s performance satisfactory.

performance review.

Illustration by Sofya Levina. Image by Gazometr/Thinkstock.

Annual performance reviews are one of the few modern office practices hated equally by managers and employees. The paperwork that goes into them is time-consuming and boring, and often contains questions or prompts that are totally irrelevant to the job in question. The review meetings are awkward conversations long on abstraction and short on specifics. For employees, criticism often comes too late, after the chance to fix a problem has passed. And the process requires each party to do something most people are strongly disinclined to do: Brag about yourself or criticize someone else, depending on which side of the table you’re on.

If performance reviews were useful, we all might have a good reason for gritting our teeth and putting up with them. But they’re not particularly good at what they’re meant to do: evaluate worker performance objectively and give workers discrete goals for improvement. One study found that only 20 to 25 percent of variability in performance reviews reflects the actual performance of the person being rated, while 52 to 63 percent is a result of “idiosyncratic rater effects” (i.e., the personal biases of the person doing the rating). Managers and employees both also report that recency bias—the tendency to give more weight to recent events than to long-ago events—skews the content of yearly reviews. Performance reviews are also plagued by sexism: The feedback women receive in performance reviews is less specific than what men receive, and in some cases, more critical about their personalities. Performance reviews’ focus on negative feedback also discourages workers, even the ones who say they want to learn from experience. What’s more, performance reviews are seriously time-consuming: According to a survey by CEB, the average manager spends 200 hours a year on performance reviews.

The evidence against traditional performance reviews isn’t some industry secret. In recent years, it’s migrated from the pages of business journals to the webpages of the Atlantic (“The Case Against Performance Reviews”), New York (“It’s Time to Kill the Performance Review”), and the New Yorker (“The Push Against Performance Reviews”). (Here’s the version Slate published, for the record.) And many companies have gone public with their attempts to reform traditional yearly review systems. Consulting giants Deloitte and Accenture, along with software company Adobe, have all abandoned annual evaluation for more open-ended, timely methods of delivering feedback.

These innovative companies all seem to think we should be doing performance reviews more often—as part of an ongoing conversation throughout the year rather than as a single be-all, end-all evaluation. In theory, this fixes some of the problems associated with performance reviews: Frequent check-ins eliminate recency bias and, hopefully, identify problematic habits early enough that there’s time to nip them in the bud. But they end up making the process more time-consuming by requiring employees and managers to spend more time face-to-face, awkwardly negotiating criticism.

A new generation of software aims to help with that by making performance reviews easy, seamless, and virtual.

The performance-review-as-app space has gotten crowded in recent years. Impraise, founded in 2013, bills itself as “the fitness-tracker for your professional life” and promises a simple interface that lets “performance reviews happen more frequently, making your team learns faster.” Workday, the human resources software company founded in 2005, promises that its talent management application can “motivate, reward, and develop talent based on individual, team, and business performance.” And just this past winter, TINYpulse, a startup that made its name with software that lets CEOs solicit anonymous feedback from employees, introduced “a new mobile-first application for breaking annual performance reviews into weekly bite-size check-ins.”

TINYpulse Perform is intended to be a one-stop shop for all things performance-related. Using the website or mobile app, employees create goals and rate their own performance on each goal. Managers also create goals for their teams, evaluate employees, and offer feedback. Many of TINYpulse Perform’s features are modeled on consumer apps, including dating websites, with what TINYpulse Chief Product Officer Matt Hulett calls “Tinder-style swiping” to indicate how an employee is performing. Employees and managers can’t see each other’s ratings until they’ve submitted their own, to prevent them from clouding the other’s judgment. And each employee can see the history of his or her self-evaluation over time, compared to his or her boss’s evaluation, in a simple chart. Hulett compares it to weight- or exercise-tracking apps.

I thought it would be interesting to try out TINYpulse’s Perform software with my manager, Jessica Winter, so TINYpulse set us up with trial accounts. What I didn’t fully appreciate is that there’s a big difference between using a performance-review app because management has committed to a new way of giving feedback and using it on a lark. Indeed, despite TINYpulse’s clear design and easy-to-use interface, Jessica and I found ourselves distinctly unmotivated to actually use the app as intended. As Jessica put it in an email, “most people on either side of a performance review dread doing them so much that without some kind of external duress being applied—your company or your boss leaning on you to get the review done—it’s just not going to happen.”

It turns out that people hate performance reviews for reasons that go deeper than the time and interpersonal awkwardness they require. Whether they’re annual or weekly or somewhere in between, and whether they happen face-to-face or via an app, performance reviews require employees to ask themselves, honestly, “How am I doing?” And they require managers to ask themselves, honestly, “How can I help this person make their work as good as possible?” Those are not trivial questions, especially when raises, promotions, and retention are on the line. Apps can streamline performance reviews, or gamify them, or break them into bite-size pieces, but they can’t lower the stakes.

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