Ditching Annual Performance Reviews for Employee-Manager ‘Check-Ins’

The traditional annual performance review is more about control than about improvement. Some companies are moving toward manager-employee periodic conversations as a learning and feedback process.
— By Dave Desouza

The annual performance review process is alive and well but clearly showing signs it does not fit today's business needs. Traditional hierarchies and organizational siloes are disappearing to accommodate the need for increased employee collaboration and job autonomy. The traditional performance review process worked well for decades when employees did not expect more engagement and their jobs had less autonomy and depended on minimal collaboration. Innovation flowed from R&D, and change management was a series of directives from the top.

The business environment today is radically changed, with employees participating in the creative innovation process, working on cross-functional teams, and managing their job responsibilities within a framework of career development. Annual performance reviews are making way for employee-manager conversations, called check-ins, that offer two-way feedback, promote high performance, and give recognition.

Looking Forward Instead of Back
Imagine talking to someone once a year and asking what their year was like? Chances are the response will provide few details and mostly descriptions of major recent events. Left out are the moments when creative ideas led to an accomplishment and forget the moments of inspiration that led nowhere because no one asked. Lack of conversation and feedback over the year means some activities got off-track, while others failed to meet their full possibilities.

That simple scenario sums up the major transition occurring across organizations as they move away from annual performance reviews to holding regular conversations with employees.

"Check-ins" are one-on-one conversations between employees and managers to discuss work progress and goals, performance, and a strategy for future progress. A critical feature of check-ins is the two-way feedback. The manager has the opportunity to reinforce the company's mission and goals within context of employee performance. The employee can share innovative ideas, perspectives, new approaches and career goals.

This approach is more empowering, relaxed and future-oriented rather than looking back and reliving the past. Feedback is more meaningful, motivating and engaging.

Check-ins are more suitable for organizations with flattened structures and employees who are encouraged to work on multi-functional project teams, pursue career goals and maintain job autonomy. This approach also demonstrates the fact the organization values employee input and transparency.

Out With Bureaucracy and in With Innovation
Check-in employee reviews can be held as frequently as desired. Adobe has ongoing discussions between employees and managers which establish expectations, offer performance feedback, document accomplishments and set expectations.

Adobe is one of the earliest companies to adopt check-in performance reviews, and the idea was the brainchild of Donna Morris, senior vice president of people resources (proving once again diversity brings new perspectives and approaches). She was frustrated with the complex, bureaucratic, and paperwork-intensive performance evaluation system that mostly burned manager time and served as a barrier to innovation. The evaluation system was uninspiring and even discouraging to many employees.

The check-in system has a different perspective because it is focused on helping people achieve high performance, meet career goals, succeed now and in the future, and optimize the manager's approach to skills development.
The Adobe Check-in Performance Review system in place now has saved more than 100,000 manager hours spent doing performance reviews. Implementing the new system required an investment in change management to develop a different mindset among managers. The managers needed the skills to create an employee experience in which each direct report welcomed feedback as opportunities for personal growth and career development.

Adobe created an employee resource centre where toolkits are accessible for building manager and employee skills around giving and using constructive feedback. Guides are available for managers on setting clear expectations and deliverables; managers and employees on giving each other feedback; and managers and employees on creating actionable career development goals.

Despite the name, the check-in evaluation system does have a structure to ensure it produces meaningful results.

Deloitte was another early adopter of a check-in system. Team leaders hold weekly conversations with employees, and they quickly found a correlation between the more frequent conversations with employees and employee engagement. Conversations are also completed at the end of projects to discuss performance and give recognition, identify challenges or obstacles, and identify future training and development.

Other companies using check-in performance management systems include Cisco, General Electric, IBM and Netflix, to name a few.

In the Moment Questions Yield Better Information
Veristat, a clinical research support company, implemented quarterly check-in conversations. The manager and employee answer five simple questions together. What are you doing well? What should you start doing? What should you stop doing? Where can you develop? How can I, as your manager, help?

Annual goals and progress toward goals are reviewed. Quarterly conversations are the minimum. Managers are encouraged to hold more frequent check-ins and to give recognition in the moment. The results include fewer performance issues due to real-time feedback, higher employee engagement, increases in internal promotions and higher retention rates.

Check-in performance management systems are becoming more popular because they better match the needs of younger talent and their companies. The annual performance reviews were designed more to rate people for raises and bonuses and to determine promotions rather than to get in-depth information about performance and job needs. It is more of a competitive process, pitting employees against each other for money and positions. The traditional performance review process is not motivating, creates fear, and offers mostly one-way feedback from the manager to the employee.

The check-in system has a different perspective because it is focused on helping people achieve high performance, meet career goals, succeed now and in the future, and optimize the manager's approach to skills development. Expectations are established and subsequent regular dialogue can lead to goal adjustments. The process is designed to help people succeed, but it can also help managers identify the employees who are low performers.

The check-in approach is not in widespread use yet, but the indications are that it is growing in popularity. Trying to fairly assess people on what took place over the prior year has always been difficult.

Human nature is such that busy managers fail to keep the detailed documentation they need for an annual review, and looking back does not help the employee with their current projects. Check-in performance management ensures the conversations take place in a timely manner.