Avoid the Performance Review assembly line

Some of the strangest debates I’ve had with Human Resources professionals and executives have been about whether it’s better to administer performance reviews on a fixed calendar Focal Point method, or on an employee Anniversary Date method.

Completing all employees’ performance and salary reviews on a Focal Point (or fixed calendar basis) has become the preferred, modern approach for many companies over the past ten or so years. I’ve administered it both ways, and having had both experiences, I’m firmly in the Anniversary Date camp. I’ve found my reasons for that preference surprise a lot of people, and that fact worries me.

There are articles published all over the web and in HR magazines saying the Focal Point method is the most organizationally efficient way to get the work done. It allows managers and supervisors to connect employee goals to the organization’s goals, and it encourages them to communicate quarterly with employees. If timed correctly, it can also tie fiscal year results to each employee’s performance results, and employees can see how they contributed to company’s bottom line.

Many of the articles argue that Focal Point is also the ultimate blessing for HR. It’s easier to administer once a year for everyone; it allows more effective annual salary budgeting (and forced distribution for some); it allows HR to do its job and market survey work more efficiently; and, perhaps the most vigorously argued point, is that it allows companies to use new software solutions that brings the business of reviewing performance and administering salary into the modern era.

I find it interesting that those arguments are often made in articles written by people who work for software companies.

But what is most interesting and disconcerting to me, is that if you start the discussion about what’s better, Focal Point or Anniversary date reviews, most people never start with the consideration of what’s better for the employee.

When I’ve pointed that out to colleagues, there’s usually a snort and discussion that ultimately suggests, “Hey, this isn’t about the employees, this is about process. We need to get this done. The other way is a nightmare. Get on board here.”

I believe that thinking is dead wrong regardless of your preference for process. On the contrary, performance reviews are all about the employee. Just ask employees.

Certainly, both methods have their advantages, and the selection of one or the other is often dependent on the company’s culture, business, and overall business model.

However, I need to say this again, because I still feel the echo of those past debates being ended by dismissive hand waves and changing of the subject. Performance review process is about the employee.

We should do what is better for the employee, particularly when it comes to reviewing their performance and sharing that assessment with them. We otherwise dismiss the crucial connection to employees and workplace culture. Performance reviews and the process of their administration must build the employee’s trust in their manager, belief in the mission and objective of the organization, and investment in providing the best ideas, innovation, and service possible.

From administering both types of methods, I’ve experienced that Focal Point poses the greatest danger to employee engagement and workplace culture. The focus on administrative efficiency, from salary budgeting to the cattle call of pushing everyone through at once, de-emphasizes the individual employee and their contributions.

Even with the most modern, up-to-date intentions and aspirations, the Focal Point method can eventually erode the humanity from the process. It becomes an assembly line for managers as they work to pump out reviews and salary recommendations for all their employees over a compressed period of time. I’ve never seen a Focal Point method help a manager stick to a quarterly review schedule in the off-season. It becomes a “one and thank God I’m done” mentality.

Depending on how many people need to approve those draft reviews and approve the salary increases in Focal Point method, the timeframe becomes even more compressed. Managers often stack performance review meetings like cordwood on their calendars, and operate a revolving door of individual meetings to get through the messages quickly and mechanically, sending another strong message to their employees. Let’s get you in and out.

Talking with management over the last twenty years, those who sit down to write reviews on the employee’s anniversary date don’t dread it. They recognize it as a regular, ongoing part of their job duties, and it becomes a welcome event to connect with their employees.

It also keeps managers tuned on how to write reviews, share difficult messages, and recognize accomplishments. It keeps performance discussions happening throughout the year on a regular basis, and it encourages them to have those quarterly discussions with the other members of their teams. In short, managers and their employees in an Anniversary Date method consistently said to me that they understand the importance of those connections and valued the process.

I’ve also experienced far fewer employee complaints about their performance reviews and managers in an Anniversary Date method. Complaints of being unfairly compared and rated against team members, of being rushed through their meetings, of being held accountable for performance issues they never knew existed, and of not getting along with their manager have been significantly less in an Anniversary Date system.

Regardless of your company’s preference or necessity for Focal Point or Anniversary Date performance reviews, the process should balance what’s right for employees with what is necessary to meet the business need and objectives. In a Focal Point environment, it takes more effort to ensure that the process doesn’t overtake the individual. In an Anniversary Date environment, it takes more effort to manage the process for each individual. That can mean more work for HR.

Just so you know, I’m okay with that.