Most lawyers look forward to performance reviews about as eagerly as they do a colonoscopy. People I know regard them as either a waste of time or a torture session. If the review is positive, the employee is usually told to keep up the good work, except do more—and faster! And when it’s bad, it’s an assault and a setup for a future firing. (Arguably, every review is a pretext for firing, since there are always areas for employee “improvement.”)
I’m not alone in my antipathy toward reviews. Samuel Culbert, a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, has made a career of bashing this corporate ritual. The author of “Get Rid of the Performance Review” and “Beyond Bullsh*t,” Culbert has called reviews “a curse on corporate America” and a “dysfunctional pretense” of objective measures.
In his most recent book, “Good People, Bad Managers,” he zeroes in on corporate culture as the ultimate culprit, particularly the “cultural expectation of perfection” and the way it perverts performance reviews. Corporate culture, he writes, denies the reality that people are imperfect, “because imperfect people can be expected to err, and the culture at large is intolerant of mistakes.”
As a former associate turned journalist, I’d say that neatly sums up the ethos of major law firms. One bad grade on your law school transcript can bar you from the pearly gates of Big Law, and there’s always the possibility that a single mistake can cost you your career. Law is the only profession I know where a typo can make you feel unworthy, deficient and dirty.
The hypocrisy, of course, is that those on the top have probably made their share of mistakes, too. “You’ve got a flawed person with more power alleging that he or she can accurately access the strengths and flaws of a person with less power,” writes Culbert. “And no one is reading that person a Miranda.”
Besides the real shame, according to Culbert, is that the practice hinders honest discourse, the sort that would benefit employee, manager and the company or firm.
So what’s the solution? A 360-degree review in which the employee gets a say in the boss’ performance? Culbert is dismissive: “Bosses always say, ‘My door is always open.’ But no one goes through those doors unless it’s to suck up.”
What about giving ongoing feedback instead of formal reviews? “It’s the same thing,” Culbert says. “It’s still a one-way street.”
What Culbert advocates is a change in mindset. “Think how different firms would be with a managerial mentality where partners were held accountable for helping each imperfect associate be their best and were incentivized for doing so, and associates had nothing to lose speaking their minds.” He says he’s not talking about eliminating hierarchy: “I’m for two-sided accountability with the report accountable for the results, and the boss accountable for establishing the conditions for the subordinate to succeed. I’m talking skin-in-the-game management where the boss has a motive for helping reports succeed.”
Sounds good. But don’t hold your breath for change, says William Henderson, a professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law and a former Big Law associate. Partners in big firms are not vested in developing associates because “they are rewarded for other activities like client service, billing time and bringing in business”—the stuff that contributes directly to their bottom line.
What associates don’t realize, Henderson adds, is that partners “still operate in an eat-what-you-kill environment.” Partners have little incentive for giving meaningful reviews, much less an exchange of ideas. “When an associate has outlived their economic value, care is taken finally to deliver a clear message,” Henderson says.
The bottom line: We all know that performance reviews are shams, but they will likely stay the way are. All in all, there are more benefits to getting a colonoscopy.