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Employee performance reviews: it’s all subjective

Dr Vincent Bicudo de Castro’s research explores the complex concept of subjectivity.

For most employees, fronting up for an annual performance review is about as exciting as going to the dentist.

While often criticised for failing to deliver its intention of improved performance, this traditional staple of employee management is also at the heart of Deakin’s academic Dr Vincent Bicudo de Castro’s research.

Before academia, Vincent worked as corporate auditor in his home city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – an employment stint that not only sparked his interest in the topic of performance reviews but eventually led him to a PhD and a career on the other side of the world.

‘It’s interesting how a student can project his life experiences into a research topics and I am no exception,’ he says.

Vincent’s research – which has recently been published in The British Accounting Review – explores the notion of subjectivity in performance evaluation through the perception of the subordinates.

‘I first realised a passion for this topic while working in a large corporation where I noticed that the process for evaluating employees’ performance had many rules and seemed quite comprehensive,’ he explains.

‘However, the whole process was mostly a varnish for formalising the predilection of superiors for some subordinates – that is, the formalities of the process were a waste of time.  Although the performance evaluation process had many rules, they were easily overridden by superiors’ discretionary decisions. Since this experience I’m extremely cynical of most employees’ performance evaluation processes.’

Vincent took a year away from his auditor role to complete a master’s degree by research –– where he explored the topic more deeply – before returning the financial services’ sector to work as an internal compliance auditor until the global financial crisis hit in 2008.

‘I then came to Melbourne in 2009 to undertake a PhD which focused on the subjectivity in the performance evaluation of subordinates,’ he says.

Surveying a large number of middle-level managers across Australia, he says one of the most challenging aspects of his research was extracting responses from the survey participants.

‘I spent a summer behind the phone calling approximately 1,000 people begging them to answer my questionnaire!’

After completing his PhD, Vincent was awarded a 2013 research fellowship with Deakin’s newly-established IPA-Deakin SME Research Centre where he remained until his 2015 appointment as a lecturer with Deakin Business School’s Department of Accounting.

During this time he also identified an opportunity to study the implementation of ‘the exam for the accounting accreditation’ in Brazil.

‘With an early-career researcher grant from Deakin, I travelled to Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia to collect data which included interviewing board members of the Brazilian Federal Council of Accountants and members of the Ministry of Education and an accounting students association,’ he says.

Vincent’s PhD research into performance evaluations is important because most studies investigating subjectivity don’t distinguish between supervisor idiosyncrasies and management control systems.

He says there are often different concepts within the idea of subjectivity.

‘For instance, are the performance evaluation rules specific about what should you do to get a good evaluation? Or is your boss idiosyncratic about what you are supposed to do? Using a survey, I measured subjectivity as different concepts to see how these different concepts are associated with other variables.’

While subjectivity is a complex concept, he adds that unfortunately, it's also one that’s often oversimplified.

‘People usually say that their performance is subjective, but what does a “subjective” performance evaluation mean? Based on the findings of my research, there is evidence that subjectivity entails more than one concept, and these concepts have different associations with subordinate performance, empowerment and conflict.’

Having his research published in The British Accounting Review is a fulfilling achievement as it enables his work to be shared with a much larger cohort he says.

‘Publishing your PhD research as a paper on a reputable outlet works like a baptism of fire. It is as a proof that you can undertake research and possibly have your place in academia.’

As well as teaching auditing to Deakin’s postgraduate students, Vincent also coordinates the Chartered Accountants Foundation Program and says he enjoys working in the Deakin Business School.

‘Along with unmatched work-hours flexibility, academia allows my research to be seen and utilised by others around the globe. This brings me a sense of fulfilment as I feel I’m contributing to something bigger.’

In the meantime, he continues to work on new projects and maintains that research is always about looking forward.

‘A publication track record is like staring at the stars – it might be bright and shiny, but what you see is in the past. By the time an article is published, the researcher is already working in something else. Currently I am working on projects in management accounting focusing on teamwork, psychological empowerment and performance measures.’

For more information Dr Bicudo de Castro’s research:

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