Benjamin Franklin once said that “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” So as painful as change can be, unfortunately it’s a pain we must endure. In today’s world where nothing is constant, change is everywhere and instant gratification is an expectation, employers must keep the pace if they want to run a marathon. Technology and its constant evolution has changed the way we look at, and perform, our jobs. We all know by now that millennials want not only a work-life balance but also more engagement and opportunities from their employers for great work life fulfillment. As part of that engagement, employers must seriously consider doing away with the annual performance evaluation—with a strong emphasis on the word annual. Performance management is crucial to an employer’s success and without the appropriate tools, we set ourselves up for failures, such as employee dis-satisfaction and ultimately employee turnover. As we look to innovate the way in which we sell and perform our legal services, we would be remiss if we did not allow for innovation in the way we manage our greatest resource—our human capital.
Performance evaluations by definition are designed to show employers if employees are individually meeting their goals and expectations and to determine if the company as a whole is aligning its workforce strategies with business objectives. In the past 75 or so years, employers have bounced back and forth between an accountability system to dismiss poor performers to a development system that encouraged goal setting and engagement. However, in the past eight years, we have seen a number of companies do a hybrid of the two where they either drop annual performance evaluations altogether (Kelly Services, Adobe) or reinvent how they use performance ratings (PwC, Deloitte). In an October 2016 article for Harvard Business Review, Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis wrote about the performance management “revolution” that employers have implemented over the last 15 years and how today approximately one-third of U.S. companies have begun to abandon the annual performance review. They pointed out that it is not beneficial to the company to wait to perform annual evaluations because, as they see it, “rapid innovation is a source of competitive advantage,” which “means future needs are continually changing. Because organizations won’t necessarily want employees to keep doing the same things, it doesn’t make sense to hang on to a system that’s built mainly to assess and hold people accountable for past or current practices.”
According to Lisa Sterritt, human resources director for Lane Powell, a 200-lawyer law firm based in Seattle, her firm is “currently undergoing a transformation in their performance management. Rather than a punitive backward-looking instrument, we are aligning performance to our strategic plan; looking forward with career planning, goal-setting, and specific skills training; and doing it all in a conversational format. I brought this initiative from my former life working in an architecture firm and it has been highly successful coming into a law firm setting.” The templates she created give employees more room to express, in their own words and not through a ranked numbering system, what goals they wish to accomplish in the coming year, areas and skills in which they want to increase proficiency, and their personal reflections on their “year in review.” Similarly here at Griesing Law, in addition to feedback that is given year round, we have always used an “open” annual evaluation system. While our forms have changed as we grow in size, we have always allowed our employees—attorneys and staff alike—free rein on how they want to characterize their performance for that year, as well as the goals they are looking forward to achieving in the coming year. Additionally, we also leave room for employees to tell us how we as a firm can help them achieve those goals. During evaluation meetings, we collaborate together on how our team can meet goals set by the firm but also how the firm can help meet an employee’s expectations for performance improvement and achieving desired goals.
With more and more studies showing how ineffective a singular annual performance review is, it makes sense then for employers to switch to a system that sees feedback provided more often and more thoughtfully. Catherine Spence wrote a recent article for Human Resources Today where she talked about how “traditional employee reviews diminish the engagement and happiness of workers, even when employees receive positive feedback.” Spence wrote that employers should “encourage managers to move toward a coaching culture that prizes skill development, regular feedback and growth opportunities. This type of coaching relies on asking open-ended questions, providing hands-on opportunities to develop new skills and allowing teams of workers to self-coach through stretch projects.” As it stands now, the annual review process is often perceived as a stressful ritual that has the potential to make an office leader feel like an amateur and a high performing employee feel underappreciated. Like all intense situations, feelings can get in the way but it’s important to remember that even the most valued employee can sometimes let their emotions run wild. I am sure we have all experienced –on the receiving end or otherwise—where perceptions of performance vary significantly in the eyes of the employer and the employee. In these instances, it’s not uncommon for emotions to get the best of us and one or both end up in tears. Keeping performance evaluations transparent and constant throughout the year can help reduce the amount of unexpected critical feedback an employee receives and also helps align the employee’s to the firm’s. However, since no system is ever perfect, there will always be some employees who take critical feedback even when it’s expected.
A good review system should focus on providing constructive feedback and should never focus on just the negatives. It is critical to remember that evaluations serve to discuss the future in addition to the past. Make sure to include suggestions for future improvement, discuss upcoming goals and learn what resources the employee needs to be successful and motivated. Employers are encouraged to implement a culture of constant learning, development and improvement with the core goal of attaining employee growth opportunities. This way, repeated efforts by an employer become a resource of assistance for employees to perform well, and the performance evaluation becomes a dialogue of accomplished goals rather than an argument of unattainable tasks. Even though you should strive to provide constant feedback, it is important that the feedback is thorough and effective. Constant feedback can only be useful if both parties take the information and learn from it. It does you as the employer no good to provide constructive feedback to employees but not follow up when there has been no change or not praise the employee when expectations have been met. As we see more of our workforce retire, and millennials and Gen Z take over, we must remember that these generations need not only set goals but also receive praise for achievements.
By introducing new practices, constant feedback and breaking the mold with a sprinkle innovation, employers can ensure a successful transition from a highly dreaded process to a results-driven process that meets everyone’s needs. •