It’s not about whether you conduct performance reviews, it’s how many

HR leaders say that more regular assessments are necessary for adequate performance analysis.
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Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photo: Morsa Images/Getty Images

5 min read

Performance reviews are like grown-up report cards. Whether you’re on the receiving or giving end, they can be enough to make you want to call out “sick” for the day. Many HR leaders agree that one performance review a year simply isn’t enough, and over the years, companies including Google and Accenture have shifted their frequency.

While HR executives and academics have debated the usefulness of annual or semi-annual reviews, the leaders HR Brew spoke to said they’re only ineffective if done in a silo and with outdated methods.

“Going into a performance conversation once a year is riddled with issues,” said Megan Smith, vice president and head of HR in North America at SAP, adding that once or even twice-yearly reviews don’t allow employees to course-correct and can be clouded by recency bias.

But with some preparation, HR leaders, experts said, can use performance reviews to empower employees.

At ease. Employees who sweat at the thought of a mid-year review could potentially be stressed because they have poor rapport with management or are uncomfortable receiving feedback, said Nicholas P. Salter, assistant psychology professor at Hofstra University. He added that when done properly, reviews shouldn’t be negative. “Good companies are trying to address this by making it part of the culture of growth and development…Everybody gets positive feedback and negative feedback.”

Lia Garvin, an HR consultant who’s worked on team operations at companies including Apple and Google, told HR Brew that performance reviews are usually stressful when managers don’t regularly talk to employees about their work. In an email sent through her PR representative, Garvin explained, “So much pressure is put on the outcome of this one conversation. But shouldn’t we already know where we stand? The concept of understanding how we’re performing and delivering on the expectations is important.”

Eliminating biases. Further complicating the review process are unconscious biases that everyone brings to the table, especially toward people of color and women. In order to keep biases at bay, Kieran Snyder, founder and CEO of language analysis platform Textio, suggested replacing numerical ratings systems with direct feedback that’s focused solely on an employee’s work. “Appropriately structured formal processes are one of the only ways to help mitigate bias because the bias exists,” Snyder explained.

Smith explained that ratings can be inconsistent because they can vary based on the feelings of the manager at the time they conduct the review. “There’s a bias in how managers apply ratings that follows them, not the person. So, in other words, people’s own tendencies are to rate people in a certain way.”

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A Textio report released in early June analyzed the performance reviews of more than 25,000 people worldwide to study language bias in performance reviews Women, it found, received 22% more feedback regarding their personality than their male counterparts, while employees of color were less likely to be referred to as “easy to work with” than their white peers.

The report also noted that bias can occur more often when the feedback is focused on personality, and that ”personality feedback is inherently less actionable than feedback about someone’s work.” Employees should instead receive feedback that’s consistent and actionable. “On average, people who get more feedback have a career advantage,” the report said.

Better for everyone. Many HR leaders whose organizations use performance reviews seem to largely believe that they should happen more frequently.

Car insights website Edmunds overhauled its review program in 2015, moving from an annual-review program to more frequent, constructive reviews. Jamie Epstein, Edmunds’ chief people officer, told HR Brew that her company has two-way quarterly conversations focused on employee development. “It’s actually the employees themselves that prepare for the conversation most. They answer the questions and they come in and share how they feel.” This, she explained, has led to “a better feedback conversation.”

Garvin thinks quarterly reviews are the most effective, in part because when there are long periods of time between assessments, managers can forget how much employees have improved. “The problem is everyone is busy, or managers aren’t trained in sort of ongoing career-performance management. And so they wait for the performance [review] to have this conversation, and then there’s so much extra weight on this one meeting.”

In 2017, SAP chose to connect with its employees even more frequently and moved to a model based on continuous feedback and direction. Smith explained, “We want employees to feel that their manager wants to talk about not just what they’re doing, but how they are doing.” A survey conducted by SAP found that 82% of employees “feel they receive ongoing feedback that helps them improve in their performance.”

Another option: Conducting every performance review in a room full of puppies. That’s definitely better for everyone.—KP

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @Kris10Parisi on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Kristen for her number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.