Performance Review

On October 21st, 2014, HRANB held a professional development session in Moncton, where I had the pleasure to be the guest speaker. The topic was Performance Reviews. After a brief introduction and a few observations from the podium on the current state of performance reviews, we decided to try a unique initiative. Given that we had over 90 human resource professionals in the room, I wanted to have a discussion focused on the best and the worst aspects of performance review systems and processes. I promised to capture what was said during the morning and condense the content into a document which should give the essence of an optimal performance management system. The following is the summation of what was said.

 
The Process
The performance review process is fraught with a litany of issues but fundamentally it is an important component of any organization and a major responsibility of every manager. Together, we conceded that we need performance reviews, we were just not sure that we were good at them. By reflecting on our challenges, we were able to identify a number of essential components required for a successful performance management program:
 
Managing performance is the key. Not simply filling out a form or completing a required corporate activity. It is important to make sure the focus is on the objective of helping people perform better and that everything we do is aligned with this objective.
 
Performance management needs to start at the point of hire. When a new employee begins, he or she needs to understand what the corporate objectives are, what the personal objectives are and how measurement takes place. By establishing clarity at the outset, you build the necessary foundation for a good performance management system. A good practice is to include an overview of the performance management system in their onboarding and ensure that the manager commences the process within the first 90 days.
 
Trust and rapport must exist. Both are important in order for any performance review process to have validity. The reviewer must also have knowledge of the individual and the job that is being reviewed. Too often, the manager swoops in to do a review and knows little about the person or the role. This knowledge gap calls into question the integrity and validity of the process right away.
 
Focus on the strengths. Developing what the individual is good at while addressing the areas of weaknesses should be the goal. By way of example we discussed Sydney Crosby. By all measures he is a terrific hockey player. Suppose his boss, the coach, decides that Sydney should become a goalie. How do you think Syd would stack up in the next performance review? Odds are he would score poorly (no pun intended) and after a couple of these reviews, he might be told there is no room for him on the team since his performance is subpar. Imagine losing Sydney Crosby from your hockey team because he was a poor goalie. We need to make sure individuals are in the right roles and that we are measuring and developing their areas of competence. No matter how hard we try, we probably could not turn Sydney into a great goalie. But with a little insight and courage, we could turn him into an all star centre. Remember to look for the strengths and not to focus only on the weaknesses.
 
Performance management is needed every day. It should be a daily or even weekly occurrence – not a semiannual or annual event. We need to focus on small sustainable course corrections as opposed to The Big Conversation! In many ways, performance reviews are living processes that occur all the time. We may need a more disciplined check-in every couple of months but we cannot save the feedback for those meetings. At the formal check-in meeting, the employee should receive no surprises. Everything discussed at this meeting should have been discussed during the preceding months. The check-in meeting is simply a more formal conversation to make sure both parties are aligned and moving ahead in the right direction. In the perfect world, a check-in meeting might only last a few minutes as any issues have been covered previously, as they occurred.
 
Documentation isn’t optional. We absolutely need to document performance reviews. However, there is lots of debate on how best to do this. Creating a document following the formal check-in meeting makes sense, as does a note to file following any course correction that occurs during any given week. Lots of notes to file allow HR to develop a more robust development plan. These notes to file should contain verbiage that gives context and tone to the situation. If reviews are reduced to simply check boxes and scores, one is left without the input required to inform development going forward. Documentation is important but more important is the quality of what is in the document, not simply the completion of the document. Again, we need to remember the goal - manage performance not complete the review.
 
Focus on behaviors and outcomes. When we focus on these elements we can assist the employee in adjusting to ensure alignment with corporate objectives and culture.
 
Invest in coaching by training leaders. A common issue with managing performance is tied to the fact that people, including leaders, struggle with providing candid feedback. This results in infrequent feedback sessions and a general dislike of performance management systems all together. It is essential to provide leaders with the required tools and skills to build their confidence and courage to have the ‘challenging’ conversations.
 
Set the right tone. Remembering that performance reviews are a conversation about ensuring behaviour alignment, we need to make sure the context for these discussions is appropriate. The style should be one of development and correction, not penalty and punishment. Imagine a coaching session as you seek to create the right ambiance and style for this meeting. For example, you may want to be seated on the same side of the desk, mentoring and making suggestions over a coffee. Your conversation should maintain the professionalism of a normal business meeting, while providing opportunity for self assessment or reflection. These are just a few of the considerations required to set the stage for an impactful performance review.
 
The Reviewer
Anyone who conducts a performance review is taking on the challenge of coaching a colleague. In order to coach one must be knowledgeable of the subject matter at hand; have the trust of the colleague; possess competent coaching skills; be interested and have the time; and be able to build rapport with the colleague. Not every manager will meet these criteria.

Organizations need to spend time and resources in developing managers so they can effectively coach to improve performance. Some do it naturally and very well, some abhor it, some view it as an unnecessary annoyance that needs to “get done” to get corporate off their back. Ensuring managers have the right skills, support structures and mindset to coach is critical. The role of coach is too important to be left to chance and not everyone is cut out for the challenge. Organizations need to be thoughtful in who they ask to manage performance to make sure they have created the best situation for a positive outcome.

 
Insights
Two items of note that surfaced in the session warrant highlighting.
 
The first was whether to tie performance reviews to compensation discussions. Two distinct camps emerged on this issue, both for and against, each with compelling arguments. Drawing on that conversation, I suggest considering the following construct when trying to determine if it is better to join or separate compensation discussions from performance reviews.

Compensation is typically predicated on the individual’s performance over the previous period of time. The decision is based on historic data and on looking back. Performance management should be based on the future. What behaviors need to be adjusted or skills developed to meet the needs/objectives of the organization going forward. The former is backward looking, the latter is forward looking. It is tough to tie them closely together and create a winning combination.

I believe that performance reviews should inform compensation discussions but they should be separated in delivery. Each warrants its own set of conversations and one needs to be careful not to draw the linkage too closely together. If you do, you run the risk of lessening the impact of the performance review and the corresponding behavior adjustment.

 
The second insight was the common view that employees need to own their own careers. It is not up to the organization to design and manage everyone’s career. Rather, each employee needs to be aware of what the future might hold and how best to get there. By taking control of their own career, employees can direct development conversations, guide education and training, and take advantage of situations as they develop. When employees play an active role in their career progression it helps employers understand where individual employee interests lie and, as a result, what options might exist. Employees with a high level of self awareness and a legitimate and active interest in their career development are more likely to become a highly valued colleague with a competitive edge over their peers.
 
Summary
Overall, the group believed that performance reviews are valuable. Some participants work in organizations that do it very well and others did not. Regardless, the belief is that reviews are necessary. A resounding theme throughout the discussion was that the focus needs to be less on the process and more on the outcome. Determining the desired behaviours is the first step. Then we need to work backwards to determine the best way to support employees in developing the necessary competencies and realizing their potential. Some themes that continuously popped up included: addressing transparency, maintaining a conversation, establishing trust, creating a living process not a meeting, using descriptive words as opposed to numbers, training managers, and encouraging a daily (regular) occurrence.

I’d like to thank all who participated in this discussion, and offered their voice and perspective. Wherever your performance review system stacks up, I hope some of the thoughts and themes that emanated from our HRANB session resonate with you. Perhaps you will even undertake one or two subtle adjustments to make your system even better.

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This white paper represents the collective opinions expressed during the discussions held on October 2014 at a session hosted by HRANB, where Mark Surrette was a guest speaker.

Mark Surrette
Mark Surrette , MBA, CMC
Co-Founder
902.424.1100
Mark Surrette, President of Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette, founded the organization in 1975. He has provided counsel to clients across a broad spectrum of industries on successfully attracting and on-boarding executive talent, strategic HR issues and board governance.