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Best Practices: Performance Reviews

It’s hard to know what to do about performance reviews this year. In the best of times, they can be frustrating, time-consuming, and counterproductive—so much so that companies including GE, Adobe, and Deloitte have largely abandoned them in favor of other feedback systems. This year is especially fraught, since remote work can make performance assessments harder. And it can be tough to justify holding employees to performance goals that burnout, grieving, child care, or other pandemic-related challenges have made it difficult for them to hit. 

But a lot of companies are still plowing ahead. And there are specific approaches to performance reviews that reduce the drawbacks, and maximize the benefits of an expansive, forward-looking check in. We dug into the research about reviews and spoke with a number of managers and experts about how they’re thinking about them this year, and came away with these best practices:

Discuss in more detail than usual what an employee has accomplished this past year. Remote work has meant that the work everyone does is less visible to their colleagues. So it’s important to spend more time than usual talking about it. Not just for assessing performance—a heartbreaking number of Americans surveyed recently said they haven’t felt much appreciation for their work and two-thirds of remote workers said that was making them less motivated. Just showing appreciation for the work done in 2020 is worth the time of a one-on-one meeting. 

  • Employees preparing for reviews should detail their contributions, especially any responsibilities outside of their official job description or any projects that have helped the company get through the worst of the pandemic. Best practices include sharing credit with partners on projects, tying outcomes to quarterly and annual goals, and articulating your impact with data. 
  • Managers might consider soliciting feedback from an employee’s peers to develop a fuller understanding of performance that’s harder to have this year.

Approach reviews with empathy. It’s been a rough year for many workers, and reviews are a chance to check in about the challenges workers are facing. Day-to-day meetings probably don’t allow for discussing any Covid-related hardships like at-home child care or family illness—this is a good time to talk those through. 

  • Erin Grau, a people strategy consultant, suggests that managers ask employees across their lives and work “What are you most proud of this year?” For some people, the answer might include the fact that they homeschooled their children amid everything else. “It doesn’t mean that you get a promotion for that—if you didn’t hit your goals and didn’t spend as much time on work,” says Grau. But it’s good for a manager to acknowledge successes defined broadly.
  • One advertising executive we spoke with told us that he still has to assess employees against the same financial quotas, but his approach is to be as compassionate as possible. He advises direct reports to “be honest, don’t be a hero, and speak up if circumstances are overwhelming.” When it comes to assessing performance this year, he said that “the best performers are the ones that use creative ways to still get in front of clients and schedule meetings, even in a pandemic. Navigating in a tight space is part of any sales job and should be rewarded.” 

Prevent cognitive biases from seeping into your assessments. Performance reviews should be equitable for all employees, so be aware of these common biases:

  • Recency bias may focus your assessment on projects completed in the last couple of months, as opposed to an entire year’s worth of contributions. This may be especially true as months of Zoom calls and doomscrolling from your couch blur together everything from earlier this year.
  • Proximity bias manifests when you perceive employees that are physically present as more valuable performers. With remote working, you may favor those you see often on video chat or look past the contributions of new employees that were on-boarded during the pandemic, whom you haven’t worked with directly yet.
  • Idiosyncratic rater bias can make a performance review even more subjective. Research has shown that evaluators subconsciously rate skills that they’re good at lower in others, and rate skills they themselves are worse at higher. For example, if you are a project management guru but have little experience with IT, it’s easy to be harsher in your review of an individual’s project management skills and more lenient with their IT skills.
  • Gender bias can reveal itself in subtle ways, too. One study showed that women are more likely to be given feedback focused on their personalities (especially when assessed by male managers) while men are more likely to be assessed on their skills.

Convert your performance review into a forward-looking performance development conversation. This was by far the biggest takeaway in our research into best practices for performance reviews. Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace management and well-being at Gallup, recently told us that he believes in performance reviews when they’re “a slowdown conversation about where [the employee has] been and where they’re headed, mostly about where they’re headed.” He recommends holding people accountable for performance, but also asking them to take the lead in setting their own goals as opposed to delegating them.

  • When do you address questions of raises and promotions? Grau says that these discussions definitely need to be kept separate—otherwise it completely distracts from conversations about performance and goals. And when reviews are tied to compensation decisions, employees are incentivized to present a rosy narrative of their performance and may be more sensitive to constructive criticism.
  • Stacy Mayer, an executive coach, says that most decisions around promotions and raises typically are made before a performance review, so it’s not productive for an employee to spend time debating them. She advises instead to use the review to gain a deeper understanding of the skills, experience, or relationships needed over the coming year for the manager to advocate for an employee’s promotion. “Ultimately, the strategy should be to have conversations year-round around career development, with frequent check-ins,” says Mayer. 

The best practice is to be sure that managers hold 15- to 30-minute weekly check-ins and longer 60-minute monthly conversations with each direct report. This provides better real-time data about a company’s operations, which allows any project-related problems to be straightened out more quickly. And it’s a structured way to make sure employees are receiving useful feedback, participating in goal-setting, and feeling overall more appreciated and motivated. 

Grau agrees that more continuous feedback is preferable, but thinks that’s rarely truly done—and given that, everyone should embrace reviews. “Ideally we shouldn’t have to do performance reviews. But people are so busy and so uncomfortable giving feedback that it doesn’t work that way.”

What Else You Need to Know

September is the new July. Google is now allowing employees to work full-time from home until September 2021, having previously targeted July. The company will be shifting to a hybrid approach, with workers spending a minimum of three days in the office and two remote. It’s also making changes to facilities, including installing presentation booths in its offices where employees can do professional-quality video broadcasts. 

  • “No company at our scale has ever created a fully hybrid workforce model — though a few are starting to test it — so it will be interesting to try,” wrote CEO Sundar Pichai in a memo to staff.

Companies that have had a female CEO pay women more fairly. Researchers found that women represent just 6% of top business executives, and earn 26% less than men. But the pay gap disappears in companies that have had a female chief executive or have taken steps to promote gender and racial diversity.

Sports are struggling with Covid. Despite regimens including daily testing, college athletic programs have wrestled with major outbreaks. Over 6,600 university athletes and staff members have contracted the virus, according to a partial count by The New York Times. While there haven’t been any Covid-related deaths reported by those universities’ sports programs, doctors have raised concerns about virus-related heart damage that can be particularly dangerous for athletes. The University of Florida hasn’t said whether the collapse of basketball star Keyontae Johnson during a Saturday game is linked to Covid. But the incident prompted new calls for college sports to suspend the basketball season until after vaccines are more widely administered, especially given that basketball is played and practiced indoors and involves close contact.  

  • The NCAA will hold its men’s and women’s basketball playoff tournaments in March in a single region, rather than staging early round games across the country. 
  • Pro football is making team “bubbling” voluntary for the playoffs starting in January. Unlike some other sports, it’s not requiring that players stay together in a hotel to try to avoid bringing the virus in from the outside. Players who do stay in team hotels are required to wear tracking devices to allow for contact tracing. 
  • Super Bowl television commercials, which run about $5.5 million for 30 seconds, haven’t sold as quickly this year, as advertisers weigh virus-related uncertainties.
  • The history of sports’ grappling with pandemic includes baseball great Babe Ruth’s virus-related illness in 1918.


School snow days could well be history. As snow begins blanketing the US, remote classes in many places this year will continue uninterrupted. And there’s no reason that shouldn’t be permanent—schools could just fall back to Zoom for bad-weather days after the pandemic is over. 

  • So what’s the new snow day for kids to look forward to? This year, it’s a Google outage. Google services—including Gmail and YouTube—went down for an hour on Monday, and at least one school district, in Michigan, cancelled class for the day as a result.  

If you want to pass the bar exam, you might want to forego the online version. Law grads had a 60% pass rate when the Texas exam was administered online for the first time in October because of the pandemic. That compared to a 77% pass rate for the in-person exam in September. Idaho had a nearly 80% pass rate for its July in-person exam, with just 32% passing its October version online.

Harrison Jobe contributed to today’s briefing. 

The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email. Have a great day!