Want to know what your boss thinks of you? Or how colleagues regard you? Welcome to ‘360’, the vogue for assessment from above and below

The Guardian

London

A month into his first management job, working for a US software company in its South Korean offices, Niall Gibson decided that he needed to know where he stood with his staff. He got them to draw their chairs round in a circle, sat himself in the middle and asked them to tell him how they thought he could improve as a manager. Three hours later, emotionally exhausted and with the suggestions still coming in, he cut it short and sent everyone back to their desks.

It’s hard to imagine the same response in most offices, where politeness lets criticisms fester quietly, but this full-circle style is the principle behind the 360-degree assessment, the new HR tool that started out in the US — where a Towers Perrin report suggests that eight per cent of major companies use it and a further 69 per cent intend to — and is now here and moving through the workplace.

Where traditional assessments came from your line manager, the 360, as it’s known, with an eye on flatter management structures and an increase in team working, seeks input from managers, peers, those working under you and even clients for what those selling it call the most objective assessment yet.

Evaluation forms are sent out to between six and 10 people who have known the subject long enough to pass judgment. They are asked to rate the subject confidentially from one to five in a number of core competencies or company values, behavioural rather than performance-based, skills such as a willingness to listen and take on board new ideas or the ability to inspire others. The forms also ask for two things the subject is particularly good at and two they’re not.

Some companies strip out the most extreme response at either end of the scale. The idea is to pick up underlying trends, not isolated animosity. What it gives you is a gap analysis — the difference between how you see yourself and how others see you — written up into a personal plan highlighting areas for development. For some it’s the ultimate assessment tool, but the 360 has also been haunted by mistrust, paranoia and allegations of misuse.

Andy Clare of Shine, who run 360s for corporate clients, says the goal is to see yourself as others see you. “People are usually aware of their strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “But this tends to pull something unexpected out and it’s often the comments rather than the scores that bring it to life.” He admits that people can find it overly critical but says that if it’s done properly most find it helps. “Above all,” he says, “you have to establish trust.”

Colin Woodward, head of HR at the UK’s audit commission, who use it, agrees. “It’s fair to say that there’s been apprehension about it here. Nobody likes setting themselves up for criticism. But we’ve tried to talk the potential problems through in advance and generally its been well-received. It’s given quite a focus to development.”

Employees have mixed feelings. Jenni Khan, who works in UK local government, doubts whether people are honest. “People in my office held back,” she says. “It’s a scary thought, people around you constantly evaluating you, and I think everyone here was concerned not to upset anyone. Apparently my great weakness is that I don’t delegate, which in this place is a backhanded compliment.”

Others have had less benign experiences. “I dread them,” says Ray Weir, who’s currently going through his latest round of 360s. “On one level they’re great. They give you space for reflection. And they’re fairer than just being judged by your boss. But they can be very painful. The boundaries between the professional and the personal can feel very blurred.”

Ally Green, who works in IT for an insurance company, thinks the boundaries are already down. She says 360s can be little more than popularity contests. “I have no problems having my weaknesses exposed as long as the company is prepared to do something about them. One thing that came out of it was that some people thought I was cold. The truth is that I’m a quiet person. What am I going to do? I found myself going down the pub at lunchtimes trying desperately to be one of the gang. It was humiliating.”

Beyond any problems individuals have with it as a development tool, there are suspicions that the 360 can be used for darker ends. “I’ve seen them used very politically,” recounts one manager who used to work in the City, London’s financial centre. “I’ve had memos asking me to hold the good stuff and concentrate on development comments, where development is just shorthand for weaknesses. In a redundancy situation, 360s are proof that you’ve been looked at and found wanting. It’s the untold story of assessments.”

Dr Maura Kerrin, senior research fellow at the UK’s Institute for Employment Studies, agrees that the procedure is a powerful weapon that can be open to misuse. “It’s a different animal at different levels. In the right context it’s a good idea. But there are contexts where it shouldn’t be used. It should never be like big brother watching over you.”