It’s my favorite time of the year, again: time for annual reviews!

Hopefully, you could hear the sound of sarcasm dripping from each word in that sentence. I don’t know anyone who looks forward to annual reviews. As a manager, I dread this more than others. Not only do I get to have my own review, but I get to do the review for all of those who report to me.

I have to say that doing annual reviews falls somewhere between performing a root canal on myself and suffering through reruns of “Little House on the Prairie”. I know that seems like a broad area of pain, unless you hate that show as much as I do.

The chief reason for this angst is that no one, it seems, is ever happy with their review. Maybe that’s a good sign that I’m taking the process seriously and trying to really evaluate my team members’ strengths and weaknesses. Maybe that means I’m an overly critical [insert epithet here]. Believe me, nothing would be easier than telling everybody that they rock and just send them back to their cubicles.

I can’t bring myself to do that, though. I have to try to make this a meaningful event. To grow, everyone needs to know where they are strong and where they are weak. How many people realistically have no areas they cannot improve on?

Aside from the discomfort of doing an honest assessment of someone, the biggest problem in most review systems is that the scores are arbitrary and meaningless. At most companies, there is no effort to baseline scores or set a reasonable standard for what they mean.

At one company, we used a complex review system with 16 different ratings in 5 areas. Each was assigned a value from 1 to 10 with a 10 being the best score. When I had finished the reviews for my team, most scores ranged from 5 to 10 with a reasonable bell-shaped distribution. So, 7 and 8 were far more common than 5, 6, 9, and 10. I later learned that another manager had simply gone through and given his people all 9’s and 10’s. Since the raises were tied to scores, his people got bigger raises than mine.

I could have saved so much time and so much aggravation by just doing the same thing. Obviously the company didn’t care. They never said anything to me that my scores were unduly low or that his were unreasonably high.

It makes me miss the simple scoring systems used in college. There you are given a course syllabus that outlines the structure of your grade. It shows what percentage of your grade will come from homework assignments and what percentage will come from exams. Where I attended college, scores were posted on the professor’s door. Not only could you look-up your score, but you could see your ranking among your peers. So, even if you got an 87 on a test, you might find that it was one of the highest scores achieved.

In the work world, you rarely have that kind of clarity. Some of your peers succeed on the basis of their social skills rather than their contributions. And even when you are given a rating, you have no idea how it compares to those of your peers. Is it any wonder that employees typically view annual reviews with suspicion and hostility?

So, to simply things this year, I propose a new system based on the Signs of the Chinese Zodiac . I got the idea from a placemat at a Chinese restaurant. There are 12 animals: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. Each animal is assigned a set of characteristics both positive and negative.

For example, the rat is said to be “Forthright, disciplined, systematic, meticulous, charismatic, hardworking, industrious, charming, eloquent, sociable, shrewd. Can be manipulative, vindictive, mendacious, venal, selfish, obstinate, critical, over-ambitious, ruthless, intolerant, scheming.” (from Wikipedia).

The Chinese zodiac assigns an animal to each year, month, day, and hour. So, you can interpret your personality based on these animals and how they interact. The interpretation of these signs is very complex and subtle.

To apply this system to annual reviews, I would take the traditional approach of breaking down performance into key areas: communication, teamwork, leadership, initiative, job knowledge, etc. For each area, the manager assigns one of the 12 animals. Along with the reviews, the employees would be given a key, like the placemat, that lists all of the animals and their characteristics. Together the employee and the manager would discuss the interpretation.

“Well, Frank, you got a Monkey for Communication and Rat for Leadership. I’d like to see you bring these two into better harmony next year. You should strive for an Ox in Communication or maybe a Rooster.”

This would also help when employees compare their results. Yes, we know they aren’t supposed to do that, but in my experience those kind of corporate rules are no more effective than speed limit signs. Using the Signs of the Chinese Zodiac for reviews would eliminate any hard feelings over someone getting a better review.

“Jim got a Rabbit in Customer Focus and I got a Horse.” Walks away with a look of utter puzzlement.

This would also head off any arguments due to an employee feeling they got an unfairly low score. “Damn it, Scott! I can’t believe you gave me a Tiger in Judgment. You know I should have gotten a Ram!”

Yes, this would produce a review system that allows for the arbitrary results of most modern reviews while allowing each employee to find their own meaning in their scores. …and peace and harmony rang throughout the kingdom!