How to Create an Effective Peer Review System
When you’re a member of an organization or a similar setup, evaluations are, for lack of a better description, a way of life. You’d be subjected to close scrutiny by your supervisors and colleagues. If you’re in customer service, you are also bound to be rated at some point by the customers you actually served. Even if you went up the ranks and became a manager, you will still be vulnerable to assessment by your subordinates.
You can never get away from having your work performance reviewed and evaluated. It’s embedded in company policies, after all, it’s part of the organization’s human resources management and merit promotion systems.
From the point of view of top management, there is no way that they can put their focus solely on monitoring the performance of the employees. While it is true that employee performance is a very important factor in their decision-making, it is not THE ONLY factor.
It is for this reason that management makes use of other avenues and techniques in monitoring and evaluating employee performance. One of the most frequently used methods is to set up peer review systems.
PEER REVIEW SYSTEM – WHAT IT IS AND HOW IT WORKS
When we say “peer review”, we’re talking about employees being assessed by their colleagues – or their peers – in terms of their performance, strengths and weaknesses, and other work-related aspects.
You’ve probably heard it used by authors and writers before, when they have their articles, research papers and other material for publication subjected to review by other authors and writers. Their work will be critiqued, suggestions will be made, and they may be incorporated into the piece before it goes out for final printing.
That’s basically the same principle at work here. A peer review system formalizes the conduct of these type of review in the workplace, with definite rules and policies in place on the what, who, where, when, and how of the conduct of peer review.
Peer review often involves the solicitation of inputs from peers – teammates and colleagues – about the performance of a specific employee, while keeping them anonymous.
Peer reviews utilize several approaches. Some companies design their peer review system to incorporate all approaches, or they can choose only those they deem are practicable to their circumstances. The most common ones are:
- Simple review. In this approach, comments are solicited from peers about the performance of a specific employee. It’s straightforward and very informal in its execution. Usually, the peers will be interviewed – either one-on-one or with a group – and that’s where information will be obtained. General rule is that the feedback provider will be kept anonymous. However, there are instances when their identity will have to be disclosed, and that usually happens in cases where the review is also provided directly to the employee being reviewed, not just his supervisor or the managers.
- Inspections. The most formal and systematic peer review approach, inspections also take the most time and resources. Sometimes, it can be described as the more rigorous version of a simple review. There are specific stages identified that everyone must go through. This is usually the approach chosen when the purpose of the peer review is specifically to find the weaknesses or shortcomings of the employee being evaluated.
- Team reviews. This involves a panel or a group providing evaluation or assessment at one time. They usually sit together, probably on a round table, and offer up their assessments.
The process followed by companies for their peer review systems differ, depending primarily on the nature of the business and the work performed by the employees. Highly technical fields, such as software development, may involve more people in the review process since some software testing must be conducted to see whether there is a need for rework. In publishing, written works undergo several screening stages by various people, so it is bound to take longer.
Just as there are no fixed peer review approaches, there are also no fixed peer review processes. It is up to top management, and the designer of the peer review system, to identify a process that will be able to turn up the desired results.
Another question begs to be asked:
Does a peer review system replace an employee performance appraisal system?
Briefly let us go over the ways that feedback or assessment about an employee can be obtained. Supervisor reviews are more results-oriented, because they tend to focus on the outcomes or outputs, and less on how these came to be.
If you base your reviews solely on direct reports provided by the employee being assessed, it’s going to be quite lacking, because all you’ll get is insight on his behavior on a daily basis, as well as how he was able to achieve the results he reported. (Plus, there’s the element of subjectivity and self-service included)
If, on the other hand, you rely entirely on customer feedback, you’re just getting a glimpse of the quality of service provided by the employee. You’ll also get an insight on his problem-solving skills. And that’s it.
With peer review, however, you will also be able to take a look at the employee’s personality, with respect to his interpersonal interactions with his peers.
From that logic, it is clear that you shouldn’t use peer review as a replacement for your existing appraisal systems, or make it your ONLY appraisal system. Instead, you should use it WITH your other appraisal systems.
IMPORTANCE AND IMPACT OF PEER REVIEW SYSTEMS
Aside from making managers’ and supervisors’ administration role somewhat lighter, with the bulk and breadth of employee review “passed on” to the organization’s peer review program or policy, why are peer review systems highly recommended?
- Peer review systems provide a closer look at the employee being evaluated. You see, no matter how good a manager is at “reading” people, there are still things that he is likely to miss about an employee, especially if there are a lot of other employees that must be subjected to review and assessment. Employees tend to act one way in front of supervisors, and another way in front of their peers, whom they regard as their equals. Managers cannot solely trust that the personality shown to them by the employee is their real – or complete – one. Through peer review, they are given another set of eyes to gain insight into the employee: his personality, strength, weaknesses, and overall potential.
- Peer review is one way to monitor and, consequently, improve employee performance. If you don’t know how your employees are doing, and you’re basing it solely on the output and financial results of the company, then you’re not really managing as well as you should. Do not forget that human resources are still one of the most important assets of every organization, and by keeping a close eye on your people, you’ll be able to steer the company in the direction that you want (the goal of the organization). By pointing out the weaknesses of the employee through peer review, you’d be encouraging them to improve. They will focus more on those weaknesses and work on them, until such time that they can turn things around and transform those weaknesses into strengths.
- Through peer review, business processes may also be monitored. Peer review is also a roundabout way of assessing whether your business processes are still working efficiently and effectively, or if there is a need to modify them. It may also provide indicators of whether you have to modify your organizational structure or stick to it. You may also get warning signs that something is no longer working, and that you should do something about it.
- Peer review is effective for team building. Team-building is a tried and tested way of motivating employees, and integrating peer review into the whole team-building setup is a great way to make the most of the endeavor. With peers providing input, employee bonding may be strengthened, and this positive effect will trickle on to their performance when they’re back to their usual working environment.
If peer review is attached to performance appraisal and, by default, employee rewards and recognition, then it is effective at providing support for collaboration and teamwork. In the end, the one that benefits the most is the organization as a whole.
PROS AND CONS OF A PEER REVIEW SYSTEM
Not all systems are perfect, and there are bound to be gray areas. Let us take a look at the pros (+) and cons (-) of making use of a peer review system in assessing employees and their performance in the workplace.
- (+) Peer review can provide more comprehensive insight into an individual’s performance, particularly on how they interact with each other. This allows the identification of employees who have emerged as leaders, even if they still haven’t earned the corresponding rank or title.
- (+) Peer review is more resource-efficient. In the first place, you are already getting assessments from people who have first-hand interaction with the employee being evaluated. Aside from saving on time and resources in having supervisors conduct the review, you don’t have to schedule separate review or assessment activities any longer. What you’re getting is already information that has been obtained from time already spent by the employees and their peers.
- (+) Peer reviews serves as a very strong tool for reinforcing good performance and behavior, encouraging employees to do better in order to be viewed in a positive light by their peers. It is one thing to be recognized by your supervisors, or be respected by your subordinates. However, there is a certain level of satisfaction of being recognized by your peers, and being evaluated for that as well. People below you are almost always expected to put in a good word for you; they will somehow feel obliged to because of the principle of hierarchy at play. But your peers are your equals, and to hear them say positive things about you gives such a positive boost, motivating you to work harder and better.
- (+) Peer reviews provide assessments that can be relied on, since we’re talking about the assessment of people who are also experts in the same field as that of the employee being evaluated. Tell me, between the movie review of an established film critic and an equally established food blogger, which one would you trust more? Film critics, in order to reach a certain level of esteem in the filmmaking industry, must have some know-how on the technical and non-technical side of filmmaking. Thus, they are considered to be experts when it comes to movies. Can you say the same of a food blogger, no matter how well-known and “established” he is? That’s the same principle when it comes to peer reviews. You’d trust the evaluation of an employee who works closely with the employee being evaluated, rather than the assessment made by another employee who works in a different department in another facility.
- (-) Peer reviews can also be highly subjective, especially since they can be clouded by the personal opinion of the employee making the evaluation. This is also, quite possibly, the biggest complaint against the whole idea of having a peer review system in place. You see, there is a danger that peer review can turn into nothing more than a popularity contest.
It is highly possible that an employee may have a prior negative run-in with the employee being evaluated, and that may cloud his judgment. Therefore, he won’t be as objective as he should, and he may purposefully bring down his peer’s evaluation simply because, well, he doesn’t like him all that much.
HOW TO MAKE PEER REVIEW SYSTEMS MORE EFFECTIVE
According to HR consultant Joe Shaheen, a “poorly structured review system wastes time, money and resources”. This inefficiency also results to an ineffective peer review system. Thus, you have to make sure your peer review system will be both efficient and effective. Here’s how you can go about it.
Choose the “peers” wisely.
Keep in mind that the review will be conducted by employees – the individuals who will play a key role in the review process. Therefore, you have to make sure that you define the peer groups in a rational manner.
Perhaps the most important part is to choose the people that you should ask or get information from regarding the employee being assessed. For this, you have to set certain guidelines, such as qualifications that the employee must have.
Determine what your top performers must have, and align them with the organization’s core values.
We’re referring to the traits or characteristics that your best performers must have. The rationale behind this is that you won’t know what questions to ask if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for.
In a peer review system, you’d end up asking questions to the employees about their peers. But if you don’t have benchmarks or cornerstones to guide you, then you won’t know what to ask them. You’d only be wasting time and resources asking questions that don’t give you the information you need.
In an article on Harvard Business Review, GloboForce emphasized on the importance of reflecting on the core values of the company or organization. You have already identified the traits that your best performer must have in order to establish the metrics you will use in your peer review; the question is, are they in line with the core values of the organization?
Take, for example, a tech company where innovation among employees is highly valued. It goes without saying that innovation should also be a core value of the company, so that it makes sense to also look for the same in your top performing employees.
Make room for flexibility within the system.
I suppose the purpose of setting up a system is to have something that will be followed and adhered to when conducting the peer review. But if you design it in such a way that it cannot be modified to suit specific situations, then it won’t be as effective as you’d want.
For example, when dealing with specific employees, you may have to take a different approach or ask different questions instead of “sticking to the script”. This should be allowed. Setting it all in stone will leave no room for movement, making the peer review system ineffective, and the results unreliable.
Embrace new technology and innovations.
You don’t have to stick solely to traditional methods to get evaluation from employees about their peers. Nowadays, social media is a platform often utilized by employees related to work. You can also incorporate the utilization of social media and other similar technological tools in your peer review system.
One advantage of this is the impression that it gives among employees how “in touch” management is with how things are done. They take interest in how their employees interact, and utilize that, so they’d feel more inclined to participate in the peer review process.
Position the program to be “pro-employee”.
There are several organizational setups where employees dread even the sound of the word “review”. They view it as a punishment or, if not, something that leads up to one. This makes them wary of anything related to the conduct of a review.
A possible reaction is how several employees, when tapped to provide evaluation or assessment of a fellow employee, look at it as part of their work. They go, “if I do not provide the information they need, it might affect my own review in the future”, or “it is part of my job, so I have to do it or else”. This should not be the case.
If you can find a way to make the peer review process fun, then by all means, do so. It should not be an ordeal for everyone involved. Instead, turn it into a program of change or a way to show appreciation and give credit to whom it is due.
Get everyone involved.
Since it says “peer review”, does it mean it should involve only the employee and his or her peers?
Of course not. Employee performance affects the entire organization, so everyone should be involved.
But wait, didn’t top management set up a peer review system so that they don’t have to be involved with the often tedious task of monitoring and evaluating employees?
Let’s clear up one thing here: yes, top management set up peer review systems to facilitate and speed up employee review and evaluation, so that they don’t have to be directly involved in it. But that does not mean they’d have nothing to do with it completely.
Therefore, it is still very important to reiterate that peer review systems must involve everyone, although in varying degrees. On the part of the managers and supervisors, the system should be reinforced with their own self-reviews and assessments.
It is for this reason that you must empower the managers to track the results. Reiterate the importance of being involved, so they will be more motivated to contribute in ensuring that the peer review system is effective.
Back it up with prompt and frequent recognition.
Here’s the question: what happens after the peer review? How can you expect to promote desired behavior if you do nothing?
It is important to have a quick follow-up to the conduct of the peer review. It does not make sense to conduct a peer review today, then provide recognition a year later. Relevance is significantly diminished if you wait that long. If employees find that there is prompt and frequent recognition after the peer review, employees are going to be more motivated to be more involved in the process.
The first step in creating an effective peer review system is to create a peer review system. From there, you can move forward in shaping and improving your system. Do not expect to have a perfectly working system from day one, because you are bound to find something to change every now and then. The important part is to put a peer review system in place, implement it, and continuously improve on it.
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