KPIs and Unintended Results

Key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics are almost magic buzz words in business and HR. The premise of “what can be measured gets done” is certainly true in most cases, especially when a laser-beam focus on a certain area is highlighted.

Thinking back to my first “real” job, the first one with payroll taxes withheld, I of course knew there were performance standards. I was a cashier in a discount department store. I was expected to be polite, move people through my line quickly, and dispense change accurately. The only thing that was measured (and ultimately mattered), was how well my drawer balanced at the end of the day.  All-in-all a good thing when dealing with money, right?

Well, I was constantly frustrated. Whether or not I balanced was not entirely within my control. When relieved for breaks and lunches, another person was assigned to my line. Meaning someone else was in charge of that money. Not me. Despite the fact that I paid scrupulous attention to each coin, carefully counting them out individually, my drawer never balanced. Not once. It was always off by a few pennies, nickels, dimes or quarters. Worse, I was reprimanded at each review for the drawer being off. As a consequence, most of the focus of my job was on balancing. If my line was slow, oh well. I was paying attention to the pennies. Good customer service? I sincerely doubt it, looking back. Even as a young person new to the workforce, I knew there was something wrong with being judged, measured and, humiliation growing with each review, reprimanded by this standard.

Instituting a KPI or metric can have unintended results. I have another very recent example. A family member recently passed away, unexpectedly. A few days after her death, the hospital sent not one, but two, letters addressed to her at her home. Her grieving husband opened these identical letters from two different hospital departments, stating they hoped her stay at the hospital was a pleasant one and that she was well on the road to recovery. Oh, and would she mind answering favorably if the hospital happened to send a survey about her experience? It was obvious these letters were automatically generated, but they violated the tagline on the letterhead: “Respectful Care.” I can assure you, our family did not feel respected. In fact, quite the opposite; but I’m guessing someone’s KPI or metric was met with the mailing of those letters.

When you develop KPIs, metrics, and other performance standards within your companies, are they things your people have control over? Do the results directly reflect their efforts? If not, do you allow leeway for the fact they don’t entirely control their own destinies? Also, do you make sure there are no unintended consequences that could potentially destroy the very thing you’re trying to build?

Photo credit iStockphoto

About the Author

April Kunzelman

April Kunzelman, PHR, has a wide range of experience in many aspects of personnel management. For over 10 years, she served as the HR Director for, building an award-winning culture. April now spends her days working with the non-profit organization Chemo Cargo, aimed at assisting first-time chemotherapy patients. Connect with April on Twitter as @akunzel and @chemocargo.

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