05/25/2010 01:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Performance Reviews In The Publishing Industry: Advantage, Boss

Last Tuesday's New York Times included a piece by Tara Parker-Pope on research that points out the perils of performance reviews, a commonly used tool of human-resources departments. She reports that Samuel A. Culbert argues in his new book, Get Rid of Performance Reviews that "annual reviews not only create a high level of stress for workers, but end up making everybody--bosses and subordinates--less effective at their jobs." Waiting for the yearly evaluation makes supervisors less eager to offer timely corrections and suggestions. And the evaluations themselves put stress on both parties. Bravo.

I spent over 40 years working in large organizations, and at first I found the performance reviews an annoyance; over the years they became a scourge. I was mindfully working to make sure that my people were doing their jobs with energy and enthusiasm. If there was a problem, I dealt with it there and then. This worked for most of my career.

But as publishing companies were bought and sold, they turned more bureaucratic, and the performance review became a monster. I had to fill out page after page for each employee (now called "direct report"), answering questions, many of which were irrelevant to the person or the work at hand. I tried to write them with some style, so that in reading the pages, the employee would smile, or nod, and not feel undermined. That didn't last. Eventually it was noticed (see, I put that in the passive voice, a characteristic of bureaucrats) that my performance reviews were too breezy and friendly, and did not carry the proper tone. I was told to submit my reviews for review by my boss. Lively prose was deleted, and praise was toned down.

The fundamental balance of power in this procedure is that the boss writes the document in advance, and it goes into your file, no matter what you think about its fairness or accuracy. In tennis, you would call this "Advantage, Boss." I realized that the purpose of these reviews was not to improve performance or begin a useful conversation, but to limit people's expectation of raises and promotions.

Then came the day when my "supervisor" (the word, "boss" was no longer in vogue) handed me a critical review. It had been a hard year for everybody. We all watched the smoke from the World Trade Towers that September day, and publishing, like other media, was struggling. When I read an evaluation that described my performance, I felt it was unfair, but there was little opportunity for rebuttal; the pages had been reviewed, approved, and were already in the file. This performance review was the beginning of my decision to leave the business. Is that what they intended? My supervisor looked unhappy throughout this exchange, but stress is an effect of these reviews, according to the author of Get Rid of Performance Reviews. I'll never know what they had in mind, and frankly I don't care.

But I always wondered if my mistrust of performance reviews was correct, or just another aspect of my rebellious nature. Tara Parker-Pope's piece tells me that I was right all along. I just love it when social psychologists verify my paranoia, don't you?