COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | STAN SEWITCH

The value of a coffee-stained performance review

I was talking with Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40 Company, this morning about our recently concluded global human resources conference. We convene once a year to share ideas, solve mutual challenges and plan for the future. One of the areas we explored was how to improve our performance review tools.

Actually, there is no perfect performance review document other than a blank sheet of paper in the hands of a skilled leader and a dedicated employee. If the goal is an authentic, caring, substantive dialogue about how both the employee and the supervisor can continue to grow and improve, the structure of the form used is less important.

Garry agreed with the conclusion, saying, “I don’t care as much about the format of the review. I think the review should be a living document that contains the summary of rich interaction between the leader and the employee. It should have notes on it and show the wear of frequent handling. There should be coffee stains on it from being center stage between two people who share the safety of honesty in relaxed communication.

“If our primary duty as leaders is to help other people succeed in their role, their life, then our challenge is to spend time with people doing just that. What is written is important, but it comes after the relationship is established, after the leader has understood and supported the employee, after the employee has risked to do more, to learn more, to expect more of themselves.”

I have found over the years that there are basically three elements to be concerned about on the topic of employee performance, contributions to the organization. The first element is that of living the organizational values. That presumes the organization has consciously selected values to live up to, of course. And it presumes that those values have been designed by as broad a participation level in the company as possible.

It is the leader’s responsibility to first demonstrate those values, and then to teach others how to do the same. Hiring the right person who already is aligned with the principle of the values is essential.

The second element is whether the employee is capable of meeting the expectations of his or her role such as ongoing responsibilities and the purpose of the role existing in the first place. If an employee is new to the role, or isn’t yet completely able to perform the full set of duties as expected, then the leader’s review should be honest and pointed toward mutual understanding of what is remaining, and how to acquire the necessary competencies.

If the employee is fully capable, then the leader’s focus should be on how to both provide opportunities for advanced learning and prepare for promotion when business needs require the higher contribution level.

Of course, the business has to be performing well enough to need the higher position filled and must be able to afford it. Career development cannot happen without business development, so leaders must create that business growth as well.

The third element is attainment of goals. Most roles have both an ongoing set of duties, and specific objectives that change over time. Meeting expectations in the core functions of a position is always one of the goals.

To put them together, the essence is to guide an employee to reach full competency, able to achieve the organizational goals, by behaving according to the values of the company.

Performance review is the continual attention to these three elements by every leader who has responsibility for the contributions of others. It doesn’t happen just on a particular date for a specified period of time; it should happen all the time.

The documentation is a summary of those frequent interactions, and a record of the results achieved, which forms the support for decisions about assignments, compensation and investment in employee development.

Sure, it’s important to establish the rating method, how to compare across job types, how to fairly allocate raises, for example. And it’s useful to use a document that reminds leaders of the key elements of coaching, performance feedback and employee development. But I can tell when an organization has lost its ability to collectively lead well.

If there is a lot of time spent debating the calculation method of scoring, the aim of the company is way off. If there are multiple meetings about using numbers versus letters for ratings, the point is being missed.

If the goal of the organization is to make the review procedure as labor-free and automated as possible, reducing human interaction opportunities, then the chance for true value in performance feedback is zero. You can’t get coffee stains on email.


Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at sewitch1@cox.net

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