Living the Zappos HR Lifestyle - An Interview with Jamie Naughton (Cruise Ship Captain at Zappos)
Living the Zappos Lifestyle - Bathrobes and Flasks Replace Pens and Cups...

What's That Smell? Self Assessments & Performance Management

People!  I'm at the Halogen Software User Confernece.  In the spirit of challenging the performance management status quo, I offer this oldie but goodie that I want people in Ottawa (that's where the conference is and where Halogen is headquartered) to see...

As an individual who recently revamped a performance management system from the old subjective system (everyone gets the same 80 items, rank on a scale of 1 to 5) to one driven by cascading goals driving individual objectives across the organization, I've had a lot of time to ponder things in the performance management space.  One thing I have run into is the value of allowing employees to evaluate themselves as part of the process (Self-Evaluations!!)....Dennismiller

Now, I don't want go all Dennis Miller and get off on a rant here, but the prospect of self-evaluations is more riddled with holes than the final season of the Sopranos.

Here's why I don't like Self Evaluations:

1.  There is always a gap between real and perceived performance, and the gap is always largest with your lowest performing employees.  Poor performers lack the skills to perform - which are the same skills required to evaluate their performance. They don’t understand that they don’t understand, and so believe their abilities compare positively to their peers.  The Success Factors Blog plots this out with research to back it up... See the chart below from their site as well....

2.  Self Assessments set up managers who struggle with performance management to fail unnecessarily.  Your inexperienced managers already have a hard time with conflict, so you take your garden variety self-assessment (the one that allows the employees to have the first crack before receiving the feedback of the manager) and automatically your manager is boxed in a deep corner of conflict.  What is he/she to do?  Go after the perceived gaps and really drive home their point of view with multiple specifics?  Or just give in, offer up a few comments, give the employee 75% of what they wanted, and live to fight another day?  Better to allow the manager to drive the process with their thoughts before the employee has a chance to frame the conversation.  Self-Assessment afterwords, OK - Self Assessment before, not so good...

Selfeval_small 3.  Self Assessments are often crutches for managers with poor writing skills.  I literally had a manager just offer up the objective-based system to an employee, then turn it in as his own work.  I called the employee (happens to be a manager of people working for a Director) and said, "You wrote your own review didn't you?"  To which the employee responded "I did the self assessment part and I think ____ took most of my recommendations.  If you look at the last sentence of each section where the grammar changes (she meant where the grammar became very poor), you'll be able to see his comments".  Nice... what more can I say?

4.  Most employees confuse behavior and performance that "meets" expectations as "exceeding" expectations.  Called all your customers?  Got all the transactions that are a part of your job complete?  Darn, that is just plain "Exceeds"...(I'm Joking).  Most employees have the opinion that if they knock out the major components of their job, they are exceeding.  That's incorrect - the progressive view of performance management suggests that employees need to innovate and add value in other ways to truly "Exceed"  Want to know what happens with weak managers when a "Meets" employee turns in a self-evaluation that rates themselves as an "Exceeds"?   See #2 - they fold without the help of a competent partner on the Human Capital team...

Exceptions to my observations - if you use self assessments as part of a well tuned 360 degree feedback program, the self rating probably has the proper rating and is effectively counter-balanced by the non-manager feedback of others.  Of course, 360 degree feedback programs have their own set of issues, and I'll leave the pro/con breakdown of that for another day.

Bottom line - unless your org is a well-oiled performance management machine, leave the self assessment on the shelf.  Your managers won't overcome it...

Of course, like Dennis Miller, that's just my opinion. I could be wrong.



Every system has pros and cons. Certainly the downsides you have listed for self assessments are valid. A self assessment should NEVER be the sole tool of the performance evaluation. Yet just as managers can be lazy about the writing, most of us are over influenced in our evaluation of performance by recent events. The manager, who no doubt should take the time to track and discuss performance throughout the year, frequently only gets to it once a year. Should the employee then be penalized because the manager only deals with the issue infrequently?

I argue that the employee has the responsibility to write up their own performance review and offer it up to the manager. They have a greater vested interest in seeing that the performance period is looked at in total; that all of the performance criteria are considered. And besides, who has the most to learn from really thinking about the performance - the manager or the employee? See my blog posting at for recommendations to the employee on this process.

Wally Bock

The idea of self-appraisal implies that there should be a need to see how the supervisor and subordinate evaluate the subordinate's behavior and performance. If supervisors do their jobs correctly that need simply should not exist.

Part of a supervisor's job is to talk to the people who work for him or her about their performance and behavior. That includes praising and correcting. It includes helping a subordinate grow and develop. And it should happen in lots of little conversations every day.

When that happens, there are no surprises when we get to the official "performance appraisal" time. I tell my trainees and clients that if there are surprises at appraisal time for either supervisor or subordinate, the supervisor has failed to do his/her job correctly.


Wally -

Couldn't agree with you more. The key is daily coaching with a monthly or quarterly check-in to ensure all are on the same page. If the daily coaching occurs and is supplemented by more formal check-ins/status reports with the employee, there wouldn't be a need for the self-assessments. I know you have a coaching tool to assist in this, and I've posted here about my flavor of the same type of tool...

Sherry - Appreciate the insights and please come back and comment often. I understand the logic of your position, but based on the points I lined up in #1 through #4, most managers won't overcome the self-assessments if they haven't been doing the coaching Wally describes. With that in mind, it's up to us as HR pros to institutionalize coaching tools that provide a daily/weekly/monthy performance management process that superceeds the annual nature of the review.



Thanks for your response. Absolutely agree that leaders and HR should institutionalize coaching practices, clear accountability systems, and strong performance metrics. At the same time, employees need to take responsibility for their careers, their performance and their development. Wouldn't the ideal world (so hard to achieve) be where managers are doing as Wally suggested, and employees are actively identifying the gaps and owning the actions to reduce them?

Paul Hebert

I like self-assessments since most managers simply take the middle ground between their assessment and the employee's assessment.

Therefore, I always started off my self assessments with "I am a God among mortals."

Never got below "exceeds expectations."

I absolutely agree that the performance process should be ongoing with feedback given on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. The annual performance process should be nothing more than a summary or recap of all those conversations, meetings and development plans. The one advantage that I can see with self appraisals is that it gives the employee an active hand in the process. It provides some sense of buy in in the process. Of course if the ongoing process is working, the employees self appraisal should align with the managers. By the way, it was great meeting you in Ottawa this week.


Nice and informative.

Sean Conrad


Good to meet you in person this week here in Ottawa!

Talent management process steps are tools – and some of them are complex power tools. What I’m getting at is that we can toss the running chain-saw at the employee and manager with something like a self evaluation, and if we have not trained or coached them in how to use it things could get messy. Take the time to train and coach both employees and managers in how to use the tool and the situation changes from a potential disaster to getting some valuable work done.

There is benefit in the self evaluation step for the employees and the managers if it is done right. Employees get to provide managers with their own ratings, input, and documentation to support what they wrote. Managers get to see the gaps and sometimes see supporting information and examples the employee brought to the table. Finding the gaps between manager and employee ratings just highlights where the areas for development may be and where coaching needs to be focused. I agree it can set managers up for failure if they aren't ready for it - so use with care.

There are also a couple of levels of responsibility not mentioned in the article that can prevent disaster if they are being handled responsibly – approval steps. An HR pro reading and approving a self appraisal before it moves on to the manager makes sure the employee has done a good job backing up their own ratings with comments and information that make sense. After the manager writes her appraisal there is normally a 2nd level manager and/or an HR pro approval step before the meeting or interview takes place – and those approvals are critical. If there is a large gap or the manager has done a horrible job on the appraisal it should not be approved and moved on to the meeting step. Those approval steps are there so that HR or a higher level manager can find those issues and help the manager deal with them before they meet with the employee. Approvers who don’t really read the appraisal and just rubber-stamp it are part of the problem here, and again HR pros need to train the approvers and get HR involved in cases where a manager really needs some help.

I agree with the comments about ongoing coaching above as well – if managers are coaching and working with employees consistently throughout the year, the chances of the big gaps and surprises are much lower. These difficult situations tend to be more common at the start of a performance culture change which often starts with a new appraisal process. That first process can lay the foundation for the ongoing coaching, but the first time around the training and approval steps are key to prevent problems.

@Paul Hebert
Excellent, I’m not sure I could pull that off. Maybe I could add a rating above the top one “Sean literally walks on water!”

@David Hofstetter
Right on about the recap or summary David. Ideally the gaps won’t be there between employee and manager as they will have been talking about and discussing these competencies and goals all year.
Wow David – I hope you weren’t still stuck in an airport writing this! It was good to meet you in person – and great job on your presentation.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)