In order to make sound business decisions, we need reliable data. What happens when that data simply does not exist or, even worse, the data you have is bad data?

Marcus Buckingham makes the case for bad HR data in his recent article for the Harvard Business Review: “The research record reveals that neither you nor any of your peers are reliable raters of anyone. And as a result, virtually all of our people data is fatally flawed” (“Most HR Data is Bad Data.” February 9, 2015 issue). He goes on to cite research conducted over the last 15 years and documented in the Journal of Applied Psychology and Personnel Psychology in which it was found that ratings done were more reflective of the rater than of the person being rated. He concludes that “when we look at a rating we think it reveals something about the ratee, but it doesn’t, not really. Instead it reveals a lot about the rater.” Given that we know that rating data can be highly subjective, our quest as HR professionals is to find the means to still provide executable intelligence to business leaders. Our answer lies in the data itself – at the heart of the issue.

Marcus Buckingham overshoots the mark by saying that most data is bad.  He is trying, through research and studies, to predict future performance in abstract terms.  In essence he is looking at the more esoteric attributes of employees. Many companies have fallen into this trap thinking they are more advanced or sophisticated and are molding employees in the image of the “founder” or some other fictitious profile. They think they should be able to foretell if a person will be successful beyond what the person is currently doing. While such an endeavor would not only be nice, it would be miraculous. If someone could devise a prognosticating system to do this, that person would become wealthy because every company would want it.

The problem here is the focus. The studies Mr. Buckingham cites focus on factors like “promotability”, “potential”, “competency”, “strategic thinking”, “adaptability”, “assertiveness”, “motivation”, “creativity”, “initiative”, etc.  These factors are subjective and yes, rating them or teaching someone else to rate them is difficult if not impossible.

Effective performance management systems focus on results using factors that can be measured and rated rather than subjective attributes.  For example, “productivity”, “accuracy/quality”, “job knowledge/skills”, “planning”, “communication”, “problem solving”, “teamwork”, and “people management” are Performance Metrics that can be observed.  Let’s look at how to observe Productivity results:

  • Did the employee get his/her duties/responsibilities completed in the time frame given?
  • Did he/she escalate issues properly and timely?
  • Did the employee seek additional work when done with regular work?
  • Did the employee demonstrate a sense of urgency in accomplishing work?

All of the above Performance Metrics can be used to communicate expectations to employees. Employees can be coached to achieve success with these metrics. Managers can be trained to rate employees’ results in each of these metrics.

The key is to keep it simple and focus on results and achievements, not abstruse and subjective factors such as perceived employee attributes. As Buckingham was quick to point out, that only tells us about the perceptions of the one doing the rating. Results and achievements give us hard data on actual employee accomplishments.

Next we should look at what a company can use to help determine promotions and rewards for these demonstrable accomplishments. The best predictor of future performance is past achievement. If an employee has achieved sound results in the past, then provide the opportunity to take on more work to yield more results.  This is not fool proof of course, but it is sounder business sense to give employees an opportunity to prove themselves than simply measuring them against subjective factors made by different managers. Again, focusing on the result itself and not just on the arbitrary process is the key to success.

This is also where we, as HR professionals, can add value. We can train business leaders to manage performance so they can help employees to achieve more. Effective performance management can be summarized in three simple actions that I call “Perfecting Employee Performance” or “PEP”, for short:

  1. Communicate Expectations: set performance metrics and performance goals
  2. Coach for Success: daily observation of results with appropriate feedback and documentation
  3. Recognize Results – fair, objective, & timely evaluation

In three basic steps employee performance management is made simple.  As Leonardo da Vinci said, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” By helping business leaders manage employee performance this way, the results will be good data because all parties will have participated in producing that data. Guiding employee performance while it happens is the key to unlocking potential.

Now, there are some practitioners of performance management who focus exclusively or almost so on coaching.  While coaching is critical, it is not everything that is needed to successfully manage performance. Defining what success is by communicating expectations is just as important along with the recognition of results when those expectations are fulfilled. Performance measured improves performance. Performance measured and reported, quickens improvement.

Instead of surrendering to bad data, we should find the means to produce not only good data, but better employees whose work results are measurable and meaningful. This will require effective leadership from us as HR professionals along with the proper software tools to usher in next generation rating and tracking systems. This is our quest to overcome bad data and it will require all of our expertise and an endless supply of “PEP”.

Guest Author Bio: Robert Griffard, the CEO and Founder of HumanResources.Pro, has 25+ years of experience having been a VP of Human Resources, Compensation & Benefits VP, International Human Resources Manager, and Human Resources Consultant. He is well versed in all aspects of human resources, with special emphasis on compensation, mergers and acquisitions, and performance management. You can find out more about the company here