When I was employed, I disliked the month of January. I thoroughly enjoyed the December holiday season and the joy it brings. The week between Christmas and New Year’s was relaxing, with too much food and football. By the end of New Years Day, I started dreading going back to the office because I knew what was going to happen. The low number of emails I received during the holidays suddenly exploded after January 1st. It was as though I had awakened a sleeping bear who then ran after the disturber.
January was performance review month. Each employee was required to update in the HR system their previous year’s performance goals. Supervisors were then required to review and respond. Individual Development Plans (IDP) were also updated and reviewed. Formal performance review meetings, between the supervisor and employee, were scheduled and conducted during January. All these steps were to be completed by the end of January.
The worst part of January was the rating and ranking meetings. Supervisors gathered, at various levels, and assigned ratings between 1.5 (highest) and 0.5 (lowest). The group average was forced to be 1.0. The meetings normally started calmly, but as the hours rolled on and the averages did not equal the required 1.0, the knives came out. At this point in time, reality set in. Supervisors would decrease the ratings for lower performing employees and protect their stars. Naturally, those who shined held their high rankings while those that accomplished less during the year were notched down. It could be brutal and was sometimes personal. There was human bias, but it was usually exposed and corrected.
This same process repeated itself until the final January session with the head of the global business. While the sheer number of employees could not be reviewed again at the highest level, the statistics and extremes were evaluated. Were the highest and lowest performing employees treated fairly? Was there bias in gender, race, nationality, or age? Were the lower-level employees given lower ratings to pump-up the higher-level employees? Adjustments were made before the rankings were finalized.
After all this intense work, the process was not finished. Budgeted bonus and salary increase funding were fed into the HR system and allocated by individual ratings. Meetings were called and the money was adjusted at the discretion of supervisors. Perhaps an employee had a major upward performance adjustment generating a doubling of bonus money over the previous year. Managers would discuss whether this was justified or whether some of this money should be re-allocated to other employees. Again, tense debates ensued that could generate bitterness and resentment. The senior manager always prevailed because he or she had the power. Lower-level managers might appeal, but usually lost.
At the end of January, the process was finished, and the HR system was loaded with the performance and bonus data. During the first week of February, each employee was called into their supervisor’s office and informed of their new salary and performance bonus. It was easy to tell the high performers: “well done.” What was difficult was telling the lower rated performers they needed to improve. Occasionally, employees became upset or shouted in anger. Tears might flow and some left work early to recuperate from the news. I never enjoyed informing employees about their performance because I never knew how employees would react to the news, good or bad. Higher rated employees would occasionally get upset because they had even higher expectations. Some lower rated employees just didn’t care. I just hoped to make it through the day without too many bruises.
There are some who advocate doing away with forced rankings and performance appraisals. I worked with employees from more egalitarian countries who believed that all employees should be appraised equally. Equal opportunity meant equal outcomes. Once I rewarded a German employee the highest ranking (1.5) for an outstanding year. His supervisor agreed with his high performance but did not want to award the highest ranking. I was informed that “all employees were equal.” I agreed that God loved all humans equally but did not distribute gifts equally. If we rewarded employees equally, why would employees strive for excellence in the use of their God-given gifts? Employees would not take any risks or quick actions. Why improve the organization when there was no personal upside and only downside?
I sometimes wonder if I was “judging” another employee’s performance. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1–2) These verses from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount do occasionally haunt me. Judgement Day is left to God, not me. . God does require that humans be good stewards of God’s resources. (Genesis 1:28; Psalm 8:6–8). My role as a servant leader is to develop people and help improve their God-given gifts. My role is not to judge their self-worth, for all humans are worthy before God. My role should be to enhance their skills towards self-actualization. I worked to uplift, not to punish.
Even in the most egalitarian nations which advocate for equal outcomes, they cheer for their national sport teams or individual citizens to win. The winner of the men’s 5,000-meter race at the 2023 World Championship was a 23-year-old Norwegian, Jakob Ingebrigtsen. He told the press: “I love competition. It makes me better.” He accepted the largest financial prize because he took first place against stiff competition. He did not request that the prize money be equally distributed. He also knows that others will win if he doesn’t strive towards excellence. Competition never abates.
My role as a supervisor was not to decide what happened after an employee died, whether they agreed with my theology, or how they spent their time outside the office. It was not for me to “judge.” I cared about them personally, showed compassion, and respected each for their unique contributions. January was a difficult month because complex subjects were discussed using a simplified method. I did wish there were better ways to evaluate individual performance. No system is perfect, just like humans.