Sunday, July 19, 2009


As has been the case for a number of years, a reader's annual performance review struck her as a thrown-together affair. The morning of the scheduled review, her supervisor told her that she would need to reschedule their meeting since she had not had a chance to write the review. But at noon the supervisor told her that she'd be able to do it as scheduled after all.

It wasn't, overall, a stellar review. Some items struck my reader, a child-care worker, as contradictory: She was chastised for not working as well as she could with outside vendors in one portion of the review, for example, but in another was told that her job required her not to deal with anyone outside the office.

My reader has never actually been given a written job description for the position she has held for more than five years. As a result she couldn't help seeing the expectations upon which she was being measured for her annual review as a moving target.

But where my reader wonders if her boss has crossed an ethical line is in the source of some of the comments her supervisor made during their meeting: conversation overheard in the lunch room.

The supervisor told my reader that she had overheard other workers in the lunchroom talking about some problems they had in working with my reader, such as her occasional lateness to work and her not responding to telephone and e-mail messages.

Is it right, my reader wants to know, for a supervisor to base an official performance review on overheard conversation?

No, it isn't.

Because the supervisor was not part of this conversation, she has no context for the discussion, no way of knowing how serious the other employees' concerns are or how justified they may be. Eavesdropping on employee-lunchroom chatter is hardly a virtue, but it's also not a useful means of gathering credible information.

It's entirely legitimate for her supervisor to use the annual review to discuss any issues of unresponsiveness or tardiness that my reader may have, though it would be better to raise them before the annual review, so that the employee would have a chance to correct the problems before her review comes around. Any manager is within his or her rights to call out an employee on substantiated inappropriate behavior or poor performance.

The right thing for the supervisor to have done, however, was to base her review of my reader's performance on information which she herself had witnessed or which she had gathered directly from other employees with their knowledge. Checking her employee's attendance record is fair game. So is speaking to my reader's colleagues, to see what they think of her performance on the job, or talking with clients of the company to get their feedback.

In other words, the overheard conversation is merely an indication of a possible problem _ in itself it is nothing. To base a performance review on that conversation, without substantiating its content in any way, is unfair not only to the employee on the receiving end of the review but also to the employees who didn't know that they were being listened to by management. Besides which, it's plain old lazy.

My reader's boss should step up her own performance a bit and be more responsible in the way she collects and uses information about her employees for their reviews. While she's at it, she should get around to making sure that her employees have written job descriptions or, at the very least, that they are clearly told what is expected of them on the job.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Bill Jacobson said...

I agree that the boss shouldn't base her review on comments overheard in the break room but if the employee actually WAS late and unresponsive, she has no leg to stand on in challenging this. If she actually has not been late or unresponsive surely she can cite her own attendance record as evidence.

Bill Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Anonymous said...

I believe that the sloppiest performance reviews are done when the boss is dissatisfied with the employee's performance but has failed to take action troughout the evaluation period. Sometimes this is done because "taking action" can be perceived as "harrassment" by some employees--especually those who don't understand that their performance sucks almost all the time! You can probably tell that I'm venting.
Sorry about that.