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The Jewish Ethicist: 360-Degree Feedback

The Jewish Ethicist: 360-Degree Feedback

The pitfalls of work evaluations from colleagues and subordinates.


Q. Many workplaces are instituting 360-degree evaluations. Is this innovation ethically justified?

A. The "360-degree" evaluation involves input not only from a worker's supervisor, but also from colleagues and even from subordinates.

The practical advantage of this approach is clear: it has the potential to provide invaluable information to management, since most of a person's work is done with colleagues or subordinates, rather than with superiors. The practical disadvantage is also obvious: the need to consult many individuals adds considerable time and expense to performance evaluations.

But we also need to pay attention to the ethical dimensions of this practice. In one sense allowing input from colleagues and subordinates adds accountability and empowers lower-downs to provide significant input to management. Yet this empowerment is inherently asymmetrical, since ultimately only upper management has access to evaluations and is authorized to act upon them. This asymmetry results in a number of troublesome ethical pitfalls.

One problem is the difficulty of getting objective input. Co-workers not only cooperate but also compete -- for promotions, bonuses, even for attention. Enabling them to evaluate their colleagues places them in an uncomfortable position: a positive evaluation jeopardizes the evaluator's own status; a negative one puts him or her in the position of "ratting" on a colleague. The need to prevent mutual recrimination means that 360-degree evaluations are typically anonymous; this further erodes the reliability of these reports.

A closely related idea is found in the classic book on slander, "Chafetz Chaim" (I:4:11 in note). Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen writes that a person should never solicit an opinion on someone from a competitor; it's impossible for someone's competitor to be impartial and therefore the question itself is unfair.

The very knowledge that a person is likely to be evaluated by a colleague can harm worker solidarity and effective teamwork; workers are that much more likely to hide difficulties instead of soliciting friendly help in overcoming them. We have written in the past that Jewish tradition legitimizes "guilds" of skilled trades people, even though they limit competition; one reason may be that these guilds encourage feelings of solidarity among those who could otherwise be divided by competition and suspicion.

These evaluations are a bit reminiscent of "piece-work" methods of the last century. Paying workers by the piece was supposed to "empower" workers by giving them a share of any productivity improvements. But workers were not made into true partners, and they soon perceived that any improvement in performance translated rapidly into increased demands from management. Thus piece-work resulted in a counterproductive dynamic whereby effective workers were ostracized by colleagues as "rate-busters".

Some current trends towards worker empowerment, including 360-degree feedback, suffer from the same problem of partial empowerment which ultimately empowers the worker to his or her own detriment. In today's knowledge-driven workplace, workers are being provided with more knowledge and authority and are being asked to provide more knowledge to upper management, but ultimately it is the upper ranks who maintain the power to hire and fire. To some extent workers are being empowered to their own detriment.

That doesn't mean that there is no place for increased worker empowerment and input; it just means that it can't easily be ethically introduced as an "add-on" in a traditional hierarchical workplace. It requires a genuine commitment to make the worker part of the team. "Quality circles", where worker input is solicited in improving factory procedures, have been most successful in the large Japanese companies with policies of lifetime employment, promotions from the shop floor, and small worker-supervisor pay differentials. Thus worker-management solidarity is genuine, and workers truly expect to enjoy the benefits of increased productivity. This reality is not easily transferred to the bottom-line driven orientation of Israeli and North American business.

360-degree feedback and other elements of worker empowerment can make a valuable contribution to business effectiveness, and to the ethical standing of business. But if the empowerment is bogus and asymmetrical, with all true authority remaining in the upper echelons, then it is likely to create more problems than it solves. Then these procedures are doomed to become bogged down in their ethical contradictions.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

June 26, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) daniela, January 10, 2006 12:00 AM

Begging for lashon hara

About a year ago I was shocked to receive on an El Al flight, yes, precisely on an El Al flight, a piece of paper saying something about "the star of the flight", which turned out to be a request for the name of the "best" flight attendant. It goes without saying that I wrote that all flight attendants were "stars", but the same could not be said of whoever egghead conceived the program. And that's about all I could say in respectful language.

(1) Merav, June 28, 2004 12:00 AM

360 Not always fair or accurate

I remember a company I worked for had coworkers evaluate each other. What a nightmare and lesson in dirty office politics.

One woman received perfect ratings in exchange for s**. The men said strait out that they will give good evaluations for s**ual favors. I refused.

I, on the other hand, the good girl, received "could do better" on attendance, when I never misses a day. Of course even though I was never absent and I made a point of telling the boss to check attendance records. The bosses response was that even though I had perfect attendance I was expected to make improvements in that area by the next time we were evaluated by our coworkers because they don't think I did. It wasn't fair.

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