Performance Evaluations Aren’t Always Honest

Psychology prof says managers may try to encourage an employee or avoid confrontation

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Jeffrey Spence

Performance evaluations can be nerve-wracking. Employees worry they’ll get bad ratings or be denied bonuses.

But managers have worries too: Will negatively rated employees get angry and confront them? Will their criticisms demoralize employees so that they perform even less effectively? And how will their own careers be affected if their employees are rated poorly?

New U of G psychology professor Jeffrey Spence has been taking a look at the manager’s side of performance rating to determine what factors ─ other than actual performance ─ might influence the way the manager rates the employee.

“These ratings matter. Organizations use them to make decisions about training, promotions and other aspects of their work. So I think it’s important to know what other considerations might be involved,” Spence says.

His research has found a number of potential variables, and in some cases the results were surprising. For example, knowing that an employee might become confrontational over a negative rating didn’t encourage the manager to go easy on the employee; in fact, the potentially angry person was actually more likely to be rated low. Managers with more experience in doing performance appraisals also tended to give lower ratings.

“The manager’s personality or disposition was another factor,” Spence adds. “Some are more strict and harsh; some tend to go easier on the employee.”

Spence feels most people believe managers are trying to do these ratings accurately and that mistakes are simply accidental errors, or perhaps the result of the forms not being well-designed. This concept, Spence says, ignores the reality: “These are human beings evaluating other human beings in a situation where money and careers are on the line. A manager may decide that absolute honesty isn’t the best policy if it means an accurate but negative rating will discourage and demoralize the employee.”

Spence says managers may try to provide “a useful rating. That means it is useful to the manager, the organization and the employee. The accurate rating may not be the most useful. A better-than-deserved rating might encourage the employee and help the whole organization in the long run.”

Spence’s interest in how people behave in a work environment began when he applied to undergraduate studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. “I was torn between business studies and arts, and decided to study psychology,” he says. “When I took an introductory course in industrial psychology, I realized I could have the best of both worlds.”

Spence completed his master’s at the University of Waterloo and has almost completed his PhD. He joined the U of G faculty this summer.

His current research is also related to employee performance but explores another aspect: the day-to-day interactions of employees and co-workers within an organization. Some people, he points out, are generally helpful, courteous and friendly, while others may be rude, chronically late, inclined to steal from the company and unwilling to help others.

Spence is tracking people over a period of several days to gather data that might provide insights into their behaviours. For example, subjects in the study are asked about daydreaming, purposely ignoring the boss, coming back late from lunch, starting negative rumours, refusing to help co-workers and leaving early. They’re also asked about more positive behaviours such as defending the company when others are critical of it, helping a co-worker and rescheduling other tasks to meet the boss’s requests.

“What we see is that these behaviours fluctuate,” Spence says. “Even people who are usually helpful and positive are not always helpful. So we’re trying to peel back a layer and examine what causes these differences.” One possible factor ─ among others he is looking at ─ is how the employee being studied is treated by others. “If you receive help yourself, then you are more likely to go out and help others.”

When he’s not studying how industrial organizations work, Spence focuses on an insect known for being industrious: the busy bee. “I have four hives at the moment and should have five by fall,” he says. “I’ve been keeping bees for several years now.” Spence extracts the honey and bee’s wax primarily for his own use, but does give some away to friends.