3 Ways Performance Reviews Could Be Better This Year

It doesn't need to be one more source of stress on top of everything else 2020 has wrought.
Too many companies are keeping performance reviews the same in 2020. Here's one way they shouldn't.
phototechno via Getty Images
Too many companies are keeping performance reviews the same in 2020. Here's one way they shouldn't.

As we approach the end of the year, we also enter a stressful performance review season.

Traditionally, this is a time when employees meet with managers to discuss their progress and how they’ve met their business goals. These meetings can be anxiety-inducing under the best of circumstances because evaluations are often tied to pay bumps and promotions ― and future layoffs.

But with a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, upended our normal ways of working and left millions unemployed, this is not a typical time for employers to assess performance. Too many organizations are not taking the time for deep reflection and are still doing business as usual.

In a study involving 317 U.S. companies, only 30% reported adjusting their evaluation criteria for this year’s performance reviews due to COVID-19. Two percent said that employees would be given the same rating they received during the previous review cycle, and 5% said reviews have been put on hold or canceled.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs, for example, is moving forward with rated performance reviews in December. The company plans to grade 25% of staff as “exceeds expectations,” while 65% will receive “fully meets expectations” and 10% will be marked “partially meets expectations,” according to an internal memo. The main change for 2020 is that employees know what proportion of staff will be awarded each rating and they must have more formal check-ins with managers.

Meanwhile, Twitter is suspending all performance reviews this year, saying that it’s not fair to give employees dealing with different circumstances in the pandemic a formal evaluation right now.

People operations consultant Keni Dominguez said there’s not a “one size fits all” answer for how to handle performance reviews during the coronavirus pandemic. “For most organizations, I would say the best approach would be the refined, lightened approach focusing on a feedback mindset rather than quantitative measures. That seems to be the most fair, given the circumstances.”

She acknowledged, however, that some employers may do best with a hybrid approach or by canceling year-end reviews altogether. “If you lost 30% of your team, it’s probably not fair, and, to be honest, you most likely aren’t in a great position to have a structured process,” Dominguez said.

Experts offered three ways performance reviews should change this year.

1. If you do go forward with a performance review, ease off on the productivity guilt.

“We can’t continue to pretend like our employees aren’t deeply affected by all the challenges they are having to navigate during this time,” said Dominguez. Added stresses this year might include transitioning to remote work, finding the tricky balance in caring for dependents at home, and grieving the loss of friends and family members to COVID-19. For employees of color, it may also include grappling with police brutality and racism, and the fact that Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Before overhauling performance reviews, Dominguez said, employers should ask themselves about this kind of pressure with hard questions like, “Were you slow to react as an organization? Did you take proactive steps to support your employees?” and consider how the answers affect employee performance.

In the survey of 317 companies, produced by McKinsey and LeanIn.org, only half of the employers reported that productivity expectations had changed during COVID-19. That means many working parents and caregivers have been pushed to maintain unrealistic pre-pandemic goals.

Josh, a parent of two children who connects stakeholders and partners for a global health nonprofit, said that after returning from paternity leave in August, he was told during an informal review that he needed to produce more and that his employer questioned his commitment to the job.

Josh’s formal review is coming up in the next few months, and he’s concerned that the process won’t account for “our individual lived experiences as employees, and what we’re actually able to produce in a set amount of time.”

“I’m one of only two staffers with multiple kids that live with them full time, and I have some fears that there won’t be that understanding there,” said Josh, who asked that his last name not be used out of fear of retaliation at work.

“It is unfair to assess people right now on productivity,” Dominguez said. “I think it’s fair to say that most of us are less productive than we were last year at this time, and I wouldn’t even have that on a performance review.”

2. Since 2021 is so unknown, consider more short-term, realistic goals.

Part of what will make annual performance reviews realistic is accounting for the long-term uncertainty of living through a pandemic.

Josh said that at his nonprofit, performance reviews are supposed to serve as a check to ensure employees are making goals. But figuring out what goals are realistic is a “place of tension and anxiety” for him as shifting state and school coronavirus guidelines affect his work.

“I feel a lack of support and safety if these goals don’t get met for things that are outside of my control,” he said.

To that end, Dominguez recommended using the review as a time to set incremental goals that give staff time to pivot and change as needed.

“It’s a lot easier to see that far in the future versus the entire year,” she said.

3. Make structured feedback the focus. It’s the best part, anyway.

A bad performance review is all about what the employee is doing and not enough about how their manager can support them better.

“Performance reviews should be a two-way conversation, not a top-down listing of compliments or grievances,” said Michael C. Sturman, a professor of human resource management at Rutgers University. “Supervisors need to hear the issues employees are facing with regard to how successfully they can do their work.”

Despite the changes brought by COVID-19, experts agree there is value in holding structured performance reviews to get this feedback. Sturman noted reviews are not only necessary for developing and rewarding employees but also for making a case if an employee needs to be dismissed.

For that reason, don’t default ― as some companies have ― to just duplicating pre-pandemic reviews or, following Facebook, by giving every employee an “exceeds expectations” rating for the first half of the year. Dominguez said the issue with giving everyone the same rating is that it may “demotivate high performers and set the tone with underperforming employees that their performance is satisfactory.”

The pandemic can be a time for employees and managers to adjust goals and agree on which things need to be accomplished, which things are feasible given the circumstances and which areas show that success is possible, Dominguez said.

“If you were to remove the performance evaluation process, it’s a lost opportunity for managers and employees to directly communicate with one another and have those conversations around how people can grow,” she said.

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