AH, September. Time to return from the beach, stow the pool toys, hunker down at work — and, at many big companies, to prepare for annual performance reviews. But just how effective are those evaluations?

The uncomfortable truth, in the opinion of many managers and employees, is this: not very. Performance reviews often serve so many purposes — delivery of sensitive news, setting of compensation, legal protection if a fired employee sues — that the discussions can be intensely uncomfortable and managers may rush through them.

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