Some managers like to inflict harm through tiny cuts, too small to notice at the time they’re afflicted. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert continues his character assassination series with a look at poisoned appraisals.
I decided to spend November discussing character assassination. I started with the idea that attacking a peer can actually be considered a rational act under certain circumstances. Let’s call that a ‘lateral mode’ of CA, since the aggression doesn’t change levels in the office hierarchy. Next, I discussed attempts to undermine one’s own boss, and argued that such manoeuvres aren’t particularly rational. Let’s call that an upward-focused CA. This week, I wanted to reverse the perspective and touch on downward-focused CA: that is, when a person holding a position of power decides to deliberately destroy the professional reputation of one of his or her own subordinates. I feel that these efforts are even less rational than most other forms of character assassination, and there’s one tactic in particular that I just can’t fathom.
You’d think that a downward-directed CA event would be sort of rare. After all, bosses already possess all of the means that they require to destroy workers’ lives. Heck, I just finished writing an entire book on the subject of horrible, abusive bosses and what we can learn from their tactics. So why would a busy supervisor go to all the trouble to smear a person’s reputation when they could just assign some mandatory unpaid overtime (and, thereby, break the worker’s spirit)? Why would anyone (save for a malevolent psychopath) waste time attacking a vulnerable underling’s reputation when they could inflict much more harm with far less effort?
Why? I suspect that it’s for the same reason that invading armies used to salt their enemies’ fields: it’s intended to inflict some sort of long-term harm, in such a way that the harm continues to manifest long after the conflict that inspired the hate is forgotten. That suggests a certain vindictive spirit, coupled with a coward’s reluctance to face the object of one’s fears.
I believe that this happens a lot more than people might expect. I’ve found that frequently happens right at the end of the fiscal year: the dreaded annual performance appraisal. This is often the primary instrument used by a malicious manager to undermine or destroy a good worker’s professional reputation, work ethic and trust. An appraisal is a clumsy tool at the best of times; it’s a bit devious when perverted to evil ends.
Here’s the thing: performance appraisals can be a very effective way to professionally develop an employee. When a supervisor sets clear and achievable objectives for an employee and then creates the conditions that are required for the employee to succeed, then everything that the employee does (and fails to do!) accurately reflects the employee’s focus, attention to detail, perseverance and skill. The supervisor and worker can focus on accentuating each other’s strengths and on mitigating each other’s weaknesses. The two become an effective team since there’s a clear relationship between compliance and success.
That’s the theory, at any rate. Show of hands: how many of you work in an environment that lives up to that academic model? Anyone? Right. I didn’t think so. The vast majority of companies that I’ve consulted to, partnered with and worked for have all treated annual appraisals as meaningless paperwork drills. After discussing this problem with my peers in industry, I’ve found that most companies follow the same basic pattern that I’ve experienced:
- First, an employee is hired to perform a specific job… a job that often isn’t nearly as relevant after the hiring action has been completed as it was when the original requirement was approved.
- Second, the employee starts working without any sort of formal performance standards, doing whatever his or her boss directs them to do.
- Later, usually towards the end of the year, the boss is tasked to whip up some retroactive ‘performance standards’ for the employee’s official file in order to placate HR.
- Sometime after the formal rating period ends (usually months after), the boss is pressured by HR to scribble down some ‘evaluation’ notes in the employee’s file. Neither the employee nor the boss can remember what-all the employee actually did, so the ‘standards’ usually represent a sort of collective historical fiction.
- The boss then checks whatever box is associated with ‘meets expectations’, so that he or she doesn’t have to provide the onerous justification to support an ‘exceeds expectations’ or a ‘does not meet expectations’ rating.
- Both parties grudgingly sign the appraisal paperwork to make HR shut up and go away. Neither considers the appraisal to be an accurate record of what happened, but they both tolerate it because it doesn’t do any harm.
- Finally, someone in upper management doles out pay rises, promotions, title changes, new assignments and layoffs based entirely on random factors, without ever once referencing the employees’ useless annual appraisal forms.
Bear in mind, that this is the status quo ante for most of the companies that I’ve interacted with. There’s no value in the process, but there’s no active malice in it either. It’s just a waste of everyone’s time. That alone doesn’t constitute a form of character assassination. It could maybe be considered defamation (especially if no one spell- or grammar-checked the forms), but not an attack.
Character assassination comes into play when a nasty supervisor takes the time to deliberately pen some subtly poisonous comments into an employee’s performance review documents in order to forever stain the worker’s reputation. Such comments are frequently phrased obliquely so that they aren’t obvious to the majority of observers. That’s why HR lets such documents slide through the system without protest: they simply don’t comprehend what’s been written. The targeted employee might not even recognize the malign management-speak.
I once read an example of this from a notably passive-aggressive supervisor: ‘Employee responded to most taskings in a timely manner.’ At first glance, this might have seemed like simple positive feedback. In manager-speak, the evaluator was accusing the employee of being either inconsistent (at best) or an unreliable slacker (most likely). In another appraisal from the same supervisor, she wrote: ‘Employee is always eager to assist with office parties, external events and outside activities.’ That line was much less subtle: she was damning the worker with very faint praise by suggesting that the rated employee would rather be involved in doing anything other than assigned work.
My favourite example of this technique comes from (who else?) Scott Adams, from a Dilbert strip back on 20th March 2008. The Pointy-Haired Boss, in describing Dilbert’s work performance on a letter of reference for a job in another division, writes: ‘…for a man of his hygiene, he doesn’t steal as much as you’d think. I suspect he’s on drugs.’ That comic makes me laugh every time I read it. It’s accurate for the point I’m advancing, though: the subtext is clearly: This person isn’t a good employee. Don’t hire him.
I’ve always felt that these sort of personal attacks are unbecoming of a good manager: If an employee isn’t meeting your expectations, then tell them that. Give the worker a fair, fighting chance to correct his or her behaviour. Don’t shine them on with vague phrases that suggest that everything is just fine, only to scuttle their next career move months or years down the road. That sort of catty conduct doesn’t help a worker to improve, and management’s primary mission is exactly that: to help workers improve.
Another variation on this comes in the form of incongruous statements that shouldn’t mean anything, but actually convey a specific idea to a reader who’s ‘in the know’. One of my personal experiences with it appeared in the Officer Efficiency Report that I received from my Battalion S-3 (Operations Officer) at the end of my first posting to Korea. When describing my work performance, the S-3 accused me of possessing ‘no sense of humor’. I found that highly amusing: first, because I’ve always been a snarky fellow, even when interacting with superior officers.  Second, because a soldier’s sense of humour has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of his or her staff work. I knew what she was doing, tough. The S-3 wasn’t being random with that aside; she was really warning my next commander that I was the sort of subaltern who had a very low tolerance for office shenanigans. 
I can sort of understand why people like my S-3 would be petty as to write such a seemingly-insignificant thing in a performance evaluation. Even though it had nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of my work or of my suitability for future assignments, it did allow her to do one thing that she couldn’t otherwise accomplish: that inclusion in the form allowed her to stab at me again and again once I was outside of her domain. Even though we’d likely never cross paths again, and even though my potential future success or failure didn’t affect this woman’s life at all, she somehow felt that she’d been wronged, and wanted to inflict some harm to settle the score. The imagined future harm satisfied her in and of itself – and it didn’t involve any risk of painful blowback because I didn’t receive the insulting review until the morning that I left the country.
Could her insult have hurt me? Maybe. Even though most everyone in the business world realizes that performance appraisals are by-and-large valueless, they’re still valid records. That’s the beauty of wielding a poisoned pen on company forms: the document can’t easily be un-made. An official record has the ability to follow the victim for as long as they remain active in the workplace. It’s even more insidious if the employee stays in the same company. The tainted records always have the potential to surface at an inconvenient time, and may thwart an advancement attempt or to scuttle a new posting.
I suspect that spiteful people enjoy this sort of low-level, long-game form of revenge because there’s really no effective defense against it. A company might have an appraisal policy that allows a wronged employee to protest a damning appraisal, but not protest a specific, innocuous phrase in an otherwise-passing appraisal. Many companies don’t allow an employee to protest an appraisal at all – they’re stuck with whatever nasty things that their supervisors bothered to write.
Most of the time, though, these little slights tend to have no fangs. The S-3’s spiteful comments didn’t do my military career a lick of harm.  Future supervisors read the accusation and asked me if the woman was clinically deranged. Accusing me of having a terrible sense of humour might have resonated, but no sense of humour? The idea was laughable. A long string of company, battalion, squadron and wing commanders merrily skipped right over the woman’s written ‘warning’ and came to their own conclusions that I’m entirely too fond of terrible puns.
Still, she left her toxic mark, and it’ll always be there in my official service record. I can’t expunge it, can’t challenge it and can’t explain it. Were I ever to try to re-enter the service (God forbid!), an evaluator could seize on that complaint and use it as grounds to deny my application. The woman still possesses the ability to inflict theoretical harm upon me some 25 years later – possibly from beyond the grave, given the nature of our old profession. The odds against it ever mattering again are ridiculous, but aren’t zero. That, I believe, is why bad managers make the effort. It’s like a bullet fired into the air upon parting ways… it’ll probably never land, but if it somehow does, it’ll hurt.
This situation is enough to leave a person completely disillusioned over the entire concept of annual performance evaluations. Most of the time, they don’t have any meaningful effect at all, positive or negative. Everyone plays along with the game, year after year, lending false legitimacy to an inherently bankrupt practice. So long as it doesn’t matter, there’s no real harm in it other than a tax on productivity.
Meanwhile, those nasty people who try to corrupt the annual appraisal into a carrier for their unappeasable hate are doubly delusional: they believe that their own appraisals are toothless and inconsequential, while simultaneously believing that their hated subordinate’s appraisal will somehow defy convention and become a effective means of punishment later on. The cognitive dissonance has got to be painful. Yet still, people do this: they try and subtly hurt their own with a cruel turn of phrase hidden in an otherwise-dry relation of metrics and manners.
We could – we must – be better than this.
Feedback is only valuable when it can be understood and acted upon. A written review of a worker’s past self is nearly useless. The context behind whatever caused a bad behaviour gets lost as memories intermingle. People change. Relationships and expectations constantly shift. A damning complaint, then, is only valuable to either the evaluator or to the evaluated while it’s still fresh enough to motivate a change. A condemnation written in long-dried ink is valueless to the reader. If we have any affection at all for a worker, then we owe it to them to speak of their faults while they’re still in active service – it’s pointless to praise or to berate them to a future manager.
It’s also counterproductive to try and take revenge years in the future for a slight that occurred today. If you’re hard enough to avenge the wrongs inflict on you, then you’d darned well better have the courage to look your adversary in the eyes when you have at them. If you lack the physical and moral courage to fight like a grown up, then give up your hate and move on.
 If I’m honest, I was consistently extra-snarky with senior officers.
 Guilty as charged, Major!
 I accomplished that all on my own thanks to be a cheeky nonconformist, thank you very much.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.