Retooling the Performance Review


Does your museum conduct Annual Employee Performance Reviews – that classic workplace encounter in which each anxious employee meets with their supervisor to be “graded” on how well they met performance expectations during the past year and receive comments on any areas needing improvement?  Do you find these reviews to be gut-churning experiences for both parties?  Do these reviews often seem to be a waste of time, failing to result in substantive positive changes in work performance or effectiveness?  If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you might find the following suggestions to be of interest.

Frequency of Performance ReviewsHopefully your museum’s employees receive constructive feedback from a supervisor (either formally or informally) more frequently than once a year.  If not, then there is undoubtedly a great deal of good hard work that has gone unrecognized for many months, as well as some errors, false steps, and inefficiencies that may have gone uncorrected.  Whether it is informal or structured – regular, ongoing communication between employees and their supervisors about what is going well and what isn’t is an essential element of an efficient work environment.  While a formal written review is advisable at least once annually in order to create a written HR record, some institutions are moving to more frequent reviews – semi-annually or even quarterly.  Ideally formal reviews – and their documentation – are merely a summary of ongoing informal constructive feedback delivered regularly on a weekly or even daily basis as it is warranted.

Focus of Performance ReviewsThe classic performance review process is inherently hierarchical focusing solely on individual employee performance, which inevitably makes the experience angst-ridden for the employee and often for the supervisor as well.  While discussion of individual employee performance is certainly essential, consider broadening the focus of performance reviews to encompass a more balanced two-way discussion, including other elements of the work environment that can impact employee performance.  One approach can be to assess employee performance in the context of assessing the status of project(s) for which that employee has some responsibility.  How is the project going and how is its progress impacted by various factors (e.g. available financial support, facility limitations, visitor response, marketing efforts, as well as the employee’s own performance).  The supervisor should focus as much on how the institution can better help each employee do their job more efficiently and effectively as on the employee’s own performance.  Discussion should encompass strengths and accomplishments as much as it does weaknesses and areas needing improvement.  Making the review communication a two-way discussion where the employee is encouraged to suggest changes that will either make their job easier or improve the impact of the project respects the professionalism of your employees and may result in some valuable suggestions.

Inclusive and Comprehensive ReviewsIt is in the best interest of the museum to ensure that performance reviews are conducted regularly for ALL employees.  Infrequent reviews and/or reviews which focus only on problematic employees increase the institution’s vulnerability to claims of inequity in employee practices, in addition to resulting in lost opportunities for recognition of both positive and negative employee performance.

Of course, performance reviews should also include the museum’s chief employee, the CEO.  Here too it is particularly important to envision the review process broadly as an institutional assessment involving a two-way discussion between the Board of Trustees (or an appointed subset thereof) and the CEO, which includes discussion of the CEO’s performance within this broader context.  Frequent frank discussions by the Board and CEO of both institutional successes and shortcomings will tend to reduce the likelihood of such CEO reviews becoming unhealthily tense or confrontational.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that the Board of Trustees itself should engage in regular assessment of its own performance and by extension the performance of its individual Trustees.  Typically this task is undertaken by a Board Governance Committee, often through a process of Trustee Self-Evaluation.  Such assessments are opportunities for acknowledging exceptional Trustee performance and encouraging less engaged Trustees to either step up their participation or vacate their Board position to make way for appointment of a more actively supportive individual.


John E. Coraor, Ph.D.
Cultural Management Partners LLC