A Review of Reviews

How to keep performance reviews relevant in an era of 140 characters: Don’t punt them. Just make more time for regular feedback.

By Justin Dorsey, SPHR
Senior human resources manager,
Ben E. Keith Co.

There’s a confusing trend that has been gaining momentum over the last few years. The basic argument is that performance reviews are antiquated and need to be put to pasture. On a few levels, I get it. Supervisors may not have a clue about how to give constructive feedback to their employees. The majority of performance reviews are done annually, which doesn’t work in an era where the average attention span is 140 characters. Most HR folks have seen a supervisor save ammo all year and unleash it on an unsuspecting employee during his or her annual review. It basically goes like this:

Supervisor: “You were late for work on Thursday, June 17.”
Employee: “Um OK, it’s March 8, but I will definitely work on that.”
Supervisor: “The presentation you gave to the board in August did not meet my expectations.”
Employee: “I asked you to take a look at it, and you said it was good to go.”
Supervisor: “Well, I just need you to do better.”

We live in confusing times where people tend to avoid confrontation in person but openly bash things online. Perhaps we just need to reframe the way we view these discussions and have a conversation rather than a confrontation. The tone of performance reviews should indicate the supervisor cares enough about his or her employees not to let them repeat mistakes that could ultimately lead to their dismissal. Measure what matters and hold people accountable. If someone is struggling, it’s much less expensive to repair than replace him or her.

The other issue is the format of the review. As a rule of thumb, if the review form looks like something you would fill out at the DMV when renewing your license, it probably won’t be effective. If you must use a paper form, design it in a way that guides the conversation rather than restricts it to a limited number of categories.

Many companies have taken the process online, which can be effective. But reviews are only as good as the conversations that accompany them. Make sure you cover the goals that were set previously, evaluate a few specific areas of their performance, discuss areas of success and improvement, and then set new goals. That’s it. Except for the most important part...

Listen!

Ask open-ended questions to find out how the employee is doing. Create a safe space where employees can speak openly without fear of retaliation. Are they enjoying their position, or are they overwhelmed? Could training improve? Would they benefit from a more flexible work schedule? Are they interested in another role? What obstacles are preventing them from reaching their goals? Humble yourself and ask if there’s anything you can do to help. This is by far the most important part of any performance review.

Here’s the reality check: A performance review will expose weaknesses in the supervisor as well as the employee. If the relationship between supervisor and employee is shaky, the review will likely be a difficult conversation. Address the cause, not the symptom.

As for goal setting, here’s a tip. If you plan to have three goals, write two of them before the review and let the employee come up with the third one. You’ll be amazed at what they come up with and what it reveals about their motivation and aspirations.

There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for organizations, but we need to be more intentional about giving feedback to our employees in a way that they will receive it.

I encourage you to read The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace by Gary Chapman and Paul White, if you need help figuring out how to connect with your team members. One of the most valuable conversations I’ve had in my career was with a former boss who cared enough to let me know I needed to step up my performance. Bottom line, don’t punt performance reviews; just be more intentional about setting aside time to give and receive feedback on a regular basis.