Performance reviews for marriages: what could go wrong?

They'll be sorry . . . 

Woman covering mouth.flickrCC.Sarah
"You don't know what you're saying!"

Marriage therapists are now advocating the use of "performance reviews" by spouses, according to an article in Monday's Wall Street Journal. "By taking time to regularly evaluate and review their relationship together," reporter Elizabeth Bernstein says, "partners can recognize what is and isn't working -- and identify goals for improvement -- long before problems become entrenched and irresolvable."

Oh, yeah? Well, I can tell those therapists a thing or two about performance evaluations. Here is my open letter to the marriage therapists of America.

(DISCLAIMER: The following is a parody, and John and Mary are fictitious characters. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or deceased, is purely coincidental.)

Dear Marriage Therapists of America:

Annual performance reviews for married couples sounds so logical and reasonable, doesn't it? But you may wish to consult with employers, some of whom advocate dispensing with the performance review altogether. As an attorney who represents employers, let me share with you just a few of the things we've seen go wrong with the annual performance review.

*The reviewer tries so hard not to offend that she fails to address the problems that she needed to address. If a boss has this much trouble giving constructive criticism to an employee, how do you propose that it will work in the context of a marriage?

*Grade inflation. (Caused by same desire to prevent hurt feelings.)

*Grades too low, or "curve" too flat, or there's forced ranking, or somehow or other the grading is unfairly harsh to the employee. Also known as, "Everybody in this company 'meets expectations' unless they get fired or they're Jack Welch." Jack gets an "exceeds."

*Longstanding, ongoing performance or behavior issues are raised for the first time ever in the annual performance review instead of as they occur, causing the employee to experience all of the five stages of grief simultaneously. (In this context "going to the EEOC," rather than "acceptance," is the fifth stage.)

*The review is late because bosses get busy, causing the employee to feel (1) that the boss doesn't care, (2) therefore the boss is a rotten you-know-what, and (3) anyway, whatever "development opportunities" are addressed in the tardy interview don't mean anything because if the boss really cared they would have been brought up a long time ago.

*The reviewer focuses too much on what happened in the last couple of weeks before the review, instead of looking objectively at the entire review period.

The happy couple, before they started reviewing each other's performance.

Dearest therapists, in the interests of science and in an effort to prevent you from advocating a measure that is almost certain to result in a dramatic increase in the number of broken marriages in our society, I am taking the liberty of sharing with you three spousal performance reviews by a woman named "Mary" about her husband, "John." An anonymous tipster slid these under my office door this week, shortly after Ms. Bernstein's Wall Street Journal article was published. It is not known whether John and Mary are still married; based on the final review that was provided to me, I would say that the outlook is not favorable.

The first review was conducted only a few months after the wedding. You will see that it suffers from (1) a too-abbreviated review period, (2) a biased reviewer, (3) grade inflation, and (4) a grossly unrealistically positive view of the merits of the husband, John.

"Please do not disturb while I assess John's performance."

The second review was conducted at the beginning of the couple's seventh year of marriage. The comments in this review do contain some criticisms of a relatively constructive nature. The reviewer, Mary, attempts to be encouraging and positive, and the spouse, John, seems to accept the feedback with equanimity and provides some feedback for Mary as well.

The final review was untimely and in fact was conducted in the future but during the couple's 15th year of marriage. You will see that Mary's comments have become extremely negative and emotional, with perhaps unfair and unduly harsh numerical ratings. On a positive note, she does place John on a Performance Improvement Plan ("PIP") with a clear statement of the consequences if immediate and sustained improvement is not achieved. Nonetheless, her tone provokes John to respond in kind, leading me to question whether the PIP ever really took effect and, if so, whether a positive outcome was possible.

"We are going straight to divorce court, Mister!"

Also please note that in each review year (with only one exception), Mary gave John exactly the same numerical rating in each category, leading one to question whether the ratings were based on objective criteria, or just on her moods at the time of the evaluations.

Therapists, I beg of you -- please do not encourage spouses to give each other annual performance reviews! Our society should support marriage, not try to tear it down! I know that your motives are good, but please, please do listen to those of us who have learned the hard way!

Pleadingly yours,

Robin E. Shea, Esq., Employment Lawyer


*Sumithra Rao Roberts of our Los Angeles County Office has the story on California's new Fair Pay Act, which will take effect on January 1.

*David Weisenfeld of XpertHR has posted a podcast interview, in which David and I talk about "Why Employees Don't Trust HR," based on my blog post on the same subject a couple of months ago. David also has a nice summary of the labor and employment cases that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review in the new term.

*My friend and blogging buddy Bill Goren, who sent me the tip about the EEOC's new pregnancy/Americans with Disabilities Act case that I posted about last week, has taken an in-depth look at the case himself. If you're following these issues, you won't want to miss it.

Image Credits: All from flickr, Creative Commons license. Woman with hand over mouth by Sarah; bride and groom salt and pepper shakers by Jean L; 1950s newlyweds by Walter; wedding cake by Counselman Collection. 

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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