Great performance evaluations do not necessarily mean job security.

By Nancy Koury King, DM

The vast majority of managers provide an annual performance review for their direct reports. We’re all familiar with the drill. Has the employee met their goals? Do they have strong productivity and attendance? Do they demonstrate customer service? Are they a team player? And generally there is a rating system that accompanies these questions. Managers fill them out, discuss the results with their employee, and send the form to Human Resources.

Performance Reviews Should… 

This “event” provides an opportunity for us to appreciate our team member, thank them for their contributions, get to know more about their own goals, and provide them feedback for professional development. Sound familiar?

It stands to reason that if an employee had something they needed to work on, a manager would address it with them — if not before the performance review, at least during the review. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.

I interviewed 65 people for my book, “Fired: How to Manage Your Career in the Age of Job Uncertainty.” They were from all regions of the United States and worked at all levels of the organization. I was intentional about getting a diverse representation of demographics, professional levels and types of employers. Every one of the people interviewed was let go from his or her job.

Glowing Performance Reviews

One of the most consistent findings from my research concerns performance reviews. Prior to being let go, nearly all of the people I interviewed had received glowing performance evaluations. They thought they were doing a great job and their performance reviews confirmed it.

And yet they were let go.

There were a few exceptions to this; those were mostly people who had a new supervisor. In these cases, the interviewees reported having strong performance reviews until they got a new boss, and then they received a less than positive performance review.  

Job Security and Performance Reviews

Although it isn’t what we managers espouse, the rule of thumb is that great performance evaluations do not necessarily mean job security. We say we will have honest dialogue. We promote coaching and training. We talk about transparency and integrity. But, as one of my interviewees commented, “I see it all the time where I work now. People get good reviews and two months later they get terminated. If someone can make a better way (to do performance reviews), they should.” I can see all the Human Resources professionals out there nodding.

Another of my interviewees asked, “How does this happen? How do I go from outstanding to terminated?” I think we can all agree that unless there are extenuating circumstances like the employee commits an egregious offense, this shouldn’t happen.

The Big Why

So why does it? A few things are at work here. First, giving an employee honest feedback is difficult. Many managers would prefer not to engage in a difficult conversation. They fear their employee’s reaction or they don’t want to address a conflict. They may not have the interpersonal skills necessary to address the issue. So people get satisfactory reviews even when they don’t deserve them. And sometimes they lose their jobs because no one intervened.

Second, sometimes the manager him or herself may not have given adequate orientation or direction about the job requirements and the organization’s culture, emphasis on the culture. Studies show that being a “fit” is more important to job security than job competence. So the employee loses his or her job because they weren’t adequately prepared.

Third, and most importantly, there are a lot of factors at play besides job performance which impacts a person’s job security, such as leadership transitions, economic considerations, and office politics and relationships. These have nothing to do with job performance.  

We Can Do Better

While we can’t control every variable, as leaders we can help other managers understand the importance of clearly and explicitly stating expectations and providing the training employees need to do their jobs. It’s also incumbent on all leaders to help employees understand the culture, including the unwritten rules of the organization. And while hardly anyone looks forward to a difficult conversation, we can foster an environment where managers are encouraged, expected and taught how to provide clear instruction and feedback to employees about how they are doing their jobs. We owe it to our employees and the people they serve.