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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