I was speaking to a colleague the other day. He said that the senior management at his company decided to include the company’s values in the next performance review.
The values were adopted about three years before. But except for some plaques and posters not much had been done with them. Apparently, senior management decided that a greater emphasis was needed and then left it up to HR.
Here are two of this company’s values: integrity, and excellence. The company’s other values are similar. They’re fine sentiments. But by themselves not fine for a performance review.
Integrity and excellence are aspirational values, ideals that most people and companies aspire to. People sometimes confuse aspirational values with core values.
Core values reflect an organization’s culture and its uniqueness. For example, a company with responsiveness as a core value, makes decisions quickly. That can mean, for example, that there are not multiple levels of approvals before a project or purchase can go forward. This works well in some organizations, not all. And so assessing an employee on that in a performance review would be meaningful.
There’s nothing unique about integrity and excellence unless they are framed in a way to emphasize their importance to this particular company. Every company wants to hire people who are honest and do the best job they can. But let’s say this company is in an industry in which it is essential not to cut corners. In that case, integrity and excellence can take on special meaning. But that’s not a decision HR can make. Senior management must do that.
The primary purpose of a performance review is to assess performance. To do that accurately, performance criteria should describe observable behavior – usually what someone does or says or both. If it’s observable you can measure it.
For example, being responsive is an observable behavior.
You can tell when people are responsive and when they’re not. You can set standards for how quickly someone should respond, the type of behavior they should exhibit and the situations where responsiveness is required. In other words, you can establish specific performance expectations.
That makes it possible to accurately rate someone on responsiveness during the performance review.
You can’t do that with integrity or excellence.
Excellence is the “5” on a 5-point scale. It’s an absolute. And it is fine to aspire to. But it’s usually unattainable. Most people are not excellent most of the time. That means most people usually are just sort of excellent.
Integrity is similar. Let’s imagine a manager using a five-point scale to evaluate an employee on integrity. Let’s further imagine that the manager wants to rate the employee “3” – meets expectations.
The reality is most people shade the truth to avoid difficult situations. Some might interpret that as being dishonest or misleading. Some might interpret it as lacking the courage or integrity to say what needs to be said. A “3” could be a reasonable rating – if it were about behavior.
But integrity is about more than behavior. Integrity is a moral principle. A “3” out of “5” on integrity suggests that someone is sort of honest, sort of ethical, and sort of has integrity. A “4” out of “5” would be better. But actually, anything less than a “5” out of “5” suggests the individual lacks integrity and invites an argument, maybe more.
It’s easiest to give everyone a “5” out of “5,” which makes the exercise meaningless. And that’s what most managers will do.
The way out is to do what my colleague is doing. He’s working with some peers and using values like integrity and excellence as categories. Managers would not assess excellence or integrity. Instead they would assess certain elements of excellence and integrity that apply to jobs.
For excellence, some items could include:
- accuracy, completeness, and timeliness
- not taking shortcuts that could compromise quality
- providing input to improve processes
For integrity, some items could include:
- taking ownership of decisions
- providing feedback that is honest and not judgmental
- maintaining confidentiality
This way the managers can provide specific feedback on whether an employee did or did not take ownership of a decision or did or did not take shortcuts, etc. That also will ensure the performance reviews are relevant.
These items could take on greater meaning if they were linked to broader organization outcomes – an opportunity senior management has passed on, at least for now. Nevertheless, the items still can be used to assist managers identify ways in which their employees demonstrate excellence and integrity.
- If senior management is going to identify company values, they should have a clear reason for doing it and be able to communicate that reason to the rest of the organization.
- If company values are on the performance review, it’s essential that they can be assessed in terms of specific performance expectations. Aspirational values like excellence and integrity by themselves aren’t suitable for a performance review unless you identify behavior that demonstrates those values.
- A broader strategic context can give greater meaning to values like excellence and integrity. But senior management must provide that, not HR.