Full Circle – To 360 or Not to 360?

Employee reviews are a huge headache for most smaller agency owners. Yet, employees expect them; and they can be useful tools for giving feedback and direction to your staff. They can also be valuable in awarding bonuses, and determining raise percentages.

One of the more popular evaluation formats in larger corporations is the 360 Degree Development Program. The idea is to move employee evaluations, once the sole responsibility of individual supervisors, to a larger group—specifically, supervisors, peers and subordinates, and often including a self-evaluation from the individual. This style of collective or team evaluations was conceived to create a more balanced view of the individual being assessed—and to (it was hoped) cancel any bias by a single evaluator. All evaluations were scored, a combined total or comments summary assembled, and the results discussed with the individual to plan for employee improvement and growth.

We have written elsewhere about the popularity of 360º evaluations. Revisiting the issue, we see mounting opinion that they are poorly handled, negatively or improperly used, and frequently insensitive. So, following are some pros and cons for your consideration.

What’s to Like About 360s?
There are a number of pluses to the 360º Development format. First, employees get a chance to “see themselves as others see them.” Also, resulting discussions can reveal areas where business owners can make changes to help their employees, and their companies, grow. Organizations that are committed to growing managers from within like 360s for goal-setting and career direction.

If 360s are truly tied to a year-round performance development process, employees walk into the year-end review knowing there will be no surprises. Any problems or challenges will have already been covered during regular 360 discussions and coaching sessions. This makes life easier for employees and supervisors alike. Yes, you should still do an end-of-year review—a sort of summary to the year-round 360-degree development process. But the 360º process should make the year-end review about what it should be about: performance, not company financial goals. 360º proponents state that if employees can be directed to better performance, meeting company financial goals will cease to be a problem (assuming that the company is properly financially managed, of course.)

Team-based evaluations also can reduce the chance of one evaluator’s negative bias affecting an employee’s future with the company. Gathering evaluations from several levels of employees provides a more detailed picture of the individual employee’s relevant job performance, skills, abilities, character and personality traits. Also, the feedback provided can be enormously valuable for the individual, who will hear much positive comment, and learn where to focus energies for improvement. Self-evaluation adds even more depth to the 360º process, as studies show individuals often are more critical of their own performance than their peers or supervisors.

360s are also seen as good anti-discrimination tools. Having several evaluators contribute to each assessment should mitigate the impact of any evaluator’s bias as to race, gender, age, etc. Correctly implemented, 360º evaluations enhance team development, as employees become more accountable to each other, and also better informed about each others’ skills and abilities through serving as evaluators. And the system is inherently flexible, allowing coaches and employees to work out their own methods for meeting individual and company goals. In fact, within a team-based, collaborative work environment, 360º evaluations should be a good fit… theoretically, that is.

What Are the Drawbacks?
The major difficulty with a 360-degree review format, or any team-based evaluation, is that many organizations are not really as team-oriented as management likes to think. Many firms are not egalitarian, employee-driven or management-supported; and 360s require employee ownership of the process. The idea is to direct employee growth from within the employee and the team, leaving the supervisors to focus on supervision. Most traditionally structured companies cannot easily adapt to this from-the-bottom-up activity, and end up stepping all over the process before it has a chance to gain momentum.

Internal processes also impact the success of 360s. In process-heavy offices, multiple-reviewer evaluations become just more paperwork to process. Where the evaluators resent the “chore,” evaluations are more likely to be negative. This makes digital evaluations important, and many organizations are not ready to embrace a paperless evaluation system, on top of the digital-heavy work environment already in place. If reviews are negative, employees may “take revenge” on those who gave the negative review—creating a downward spiral of negativity and bad feelings.

Like so many management-embraced trends, there is often little or no attempt to positively introduce the 360º program to employees before putting it into use. This lack of “inward marketing” inevitably leads to stress and anxiety for employees accustomed to direct supervisors rating their performance. Such fears may translate into employees viewing the new evaluation format as a threat, and potentially unfair, dooming the process from day one.

Human resources professionals also advise that many evaluation forms are poorly written, failing to take into account the individual’s specific duties and responsibilities, or being so generally written that it is difficult for assessors to provide any useful feedback at all. Many companies ask “social” questions (“Are they nice to work for?”) instead of more critical performance questions. Problems also occur when companies ask people who are unfamiliar with individuals to evaluate them, resulting in incomplete forms and therefore, inaccurate or useless evaluations.

And the Real Kicker…
The biggest problem with 360º evaluations is a tendency to misuse them to award bonuses, raises and promotions. When 360s are tied to such goals, employees tend to manipulate the system by conspiring to give each other “false positive” reviews, and the process devolves into a farce. Many human resources professionals strongly recommend against using 360s except for career planning and development. Used correctly, 360s can help improve an individual’s end-of-year performance review beyond all expectations.

Finally, the people designated to review the feedback with the assessed individual are too often untrained in how to sensitively present the comments, which can cause, or aggravate, the individual’s feeling of being “sabotaged” by co-workers. Many companies have watched aghast as their workforce descended into a morass of poor self-esteem, resentment and hostility due to incorrect, insensitive use of 360s.