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Performance Calibration – Good or Bad?

Posted by Marcie Van Houten on November 22, 2008


bellcurveI’ll admit that I’ve been going along for awhile now believing that performance calibration is a good thing.  What could be bad about coming together as a management team, discussing your employees’ performance and using these conversations and comparisons to help calibrate the final performance ratings?  So I was surprised today when a co-worker referred to performance calibration as being dated and old-school and assumed, but was dismayed that companies were still dong it.  Enough so that I stopped the conversation to dig in deeper.

Well, it turns out her mental image of performance calibration was completely different than mine.  Whew, thank goodness.  But I think this difference warrants further investigation.  She associated performance calibrations with the exercise of having managers take their initial performance ratings they’ve assigned their employees and then forcing them into a bell curve assignment – or calibrating them to the curve.  This forced ranking would then likely be used to identify the bottom 10% and well, you know what happens next.  So this performance calibration to the bell curve had a very negative connotation to her, and, in my opinion, rightly so.

Performance calibration is more accurately seen today as an exercise by which an organization comes together to discuss employees’ performance ratings to ensure a consistent and fair assessment has been made based on past performance.  It’s an opportunity for managers to start the conversation about their employees with the next step to be to conduct talent calibrations where the future performance, or potential, of employees is discussed.  Talent calibration… now that’s a whole other post.

Performance calibration is good, but we should be aware that there is still some perception out there that it’s about ranking to a bell curve.  And while good, it’s not the whole story and we shouldn’t stop there.  There’s talent calibration and even talent reviews to conduct. 

But for now, good prevails over evil and all is again right in the world.  And as always, there’s the opportunity to do better.

7 Responses to “Performance Calibration – Good or Bad?”

  1. Meg Bear said

    Very good point Marcie. Companies who have a calibration culture see this as a different process then just a ratings distribution culture. They are subtle and real differences here. Thanks for calling this out. I see ratings distribution as the simplest of the two. Distribution just gives me a target to hit, calibration requires me to defend my ratings against my peers. Much more difficult.

  2. Amy Wilson said

    I also think that calibration becomes more helpful when you start considering critical skills (rather than whole ratings). For example, this person is much better than that person at writing macros in excel (and that’s a critical skill for this particular job). This can identify a mentoring opportunity, cause the manager to dig deeper into the source of the skill, and highlight growth opportunities.

  3. Joseph Bennett said

    I work for a large corporation in Valley Forge Pa. They use a performance CALIBRATION process that is nothing more than FORCED RANKING. The results of this process is the same as other FORCED RANKING programs where most of the bottom ten percent amazingly end up to be very competent and experienced older employees.

    The CALIBRATION process is executed by senior management and their rating over-rides any performance ratings by those who work close to the employee and know their true performance. The reasons used to justify the low performance ratings are unsupported and, most of the time, ridiculous and insulting. Rebuttals are ignored by the HR dept.

    In reality, the programs goal, like other FORCED RANKING PROGRAMS, is to reduce the number of older employees. This company has a special incentive to reduce the number of older employees because their health care program is self insured. By reducing the number of older employees, they also reduce their health care cost.

    A number of age discrimination complaints have been filed against the company, but they continue with the program and its goal unconcerned. Because of their unlimited financial resources and their political influence in Chester County PA, anyone filing a complaint with the Court in this County experience an unusually difficult challenge.

  4. Marcie Van Houten said

    It’s sad, but true that some organizations do not have talent development as their main motivating factor when conducting performance calibrations. And it’s also likely that as a whole the pendulum will swing from left to right as various corporate, industry and economic conditions change. The companies I’ve had the privilege to work with, however, are doing some extraordinary work using Talent Reviews to create leadership pipelines, provide development opportunities and are seen as a strategic element of their corporate planning. Hopefully, more and more organizations will see the light and follow their lead.

  5. [...] Most people do not realize just how critical.  You see, a lot of companies have some type of calibration activity.  This essentially means that it is not just your performance that will determine your [...]

  6. [...] calibration sessions (with target distributions) to create final performance ratings that stick and cannot be [...]

  7. Fred said

    both good and bad.Good as can be used to even out effect of over generous managers on the one hand and extremely mean ones on the other.Bad especially when it is used to bring into disrepute the whole preceding process;ignoring the objectives that were set and the discussions which took place between individuals nd their appraisers before arriving at the results. fred

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