Last year, Ingrid Wu didn’t have the usual in-person discussion with her manager as part of the annual review process at her job at the Law Society of Upper Canada.
“It’s kind of nerve racking,” says Wu, a membership services representative at the regulatory body, about the annual review process. “I would get all of my notes together, and there’s a bit of pressure to sell myself and underscore my achievements. At the same time, [a review] motivates you to do better at work.”
At the beginning of her employment, says Wu, the performance review process was quite comprehensive. Each year, she and her colleagues logged into an online system to type in goals, accomplishments and comments about their workplace. The process took up to 45 minutes, and afterwards they would meet with their supervisors to discuss what they’d written for about 10 to 15 minutes.
But in 2014, Wu’s workplace condensed the process so employees would have to limit their feedback to one page. Since Wu’s manager didn’t have any issues with her performance, she didn’t have to attend a review last year.
“For me, I felt like [not having a review] worked,” says Wu. “I can manage my own work, and my manager said that if he has an issue, he’ll talk to [me] about it.”
Still, says Wu, others may want a review since it creates an opportunity to have an honest discussion with a manager about expectations from both sides. “For those who might need more guidance, they’re going to get lost.”
Updating the performance review
Changes in performance management processes are becoming more common in Canadian workplaces. Last summer, business consulting firm Accenture announced plans to discontinue performance reviews and employee rankings. Companies such as Deloitte, Adobe Systems and Microsoft have made similar moves in the past few years.
There are several factors behind the trend. For one, an influx of millennials into the workplace and retirements by baby boomers from executive positions mean management structures are changing. For another, employee satisfaction has become a bigger priority for organizations, especially large ones that rely on workers with specialized skills.
“Our businesses are transforming along with our internal practices,” says Nicholas Greschner, human resources director at Accenture Canada. “With the arrival of millennials and Generation Z, we needed to make sure that we had the right way to develop the full potential of employees.”
Accenture began introducing its new system to select groups the firm calls early adopters out of its more than 300,000 employees starting last September.
Whereas previously staff members would meet with supervisors to discuss objectives and contributions twice a year, they now do so on an as-needed basis to talk about ongoing work plans. “We’ve put performance ratings aside and don’t look at them at all,” says Greschner. Instead, he says employees get the tools to focus on their strengths and how they can contribute effectively at a team level.
“It’s about meeting your personal best,” says Greschner. “We really need to rely on individuals to drive this. Our early adopters have been favourable, and employees are excited about this.”
A growing trend
Accenture isn’t alone in revamping a long-standing system. Deloitte started implementing changes to its performance review process a year ago.
“While [the traditional approach]was working reasonably well, it wasn’t serving us when we look ahead to the future,” said Jason Winkler, managing partner of talent at Deloitte Canada. “It wasn’t what our clients and people were looking for.”
Deloitte’s new meetings occur biweekly or weekly and include a focus not only on employees’ work goals but also their career development.
Antoinette Blunt, president of Ironside Consulting Services, says restructuring the performance review process will remove the negative connotations it has sometimes held in the workplace.
According to Blunt, some employees are afraid of surprises during their reviews. “Reviews should not have one standard approach and look at the work being done,” says Blunt.
“There should be a clear dialogue with employees on how they should be appraised based on their roles,” she adds.
Standard performance reviews can leave managers with a lot of administrative work. Wu says that before her workplace streamlined its process, staff spent a lot of time filling out the performance review forms and then left managers to process a significant amount of information. By limiting the form to one page, the company lessened everyone’s administrative workload.
As much as reviews can be unpleasant for employees, Blunt notes they can be equally burdensome for managers tasked with capturing a year of work into one or two long meetings if they haven’t been taking notes on a regular basis. “It’s time-consuming if you haven’t been keeping notes,” says Blunt. “There’s also often not enough training or support for many to carry this out.”
Deloitte recognized the need to train managers to navigate its new process, says Patricia Salverda, associate partner and deputy to managing partner for talent at Deloitte. She’s worked extensively on ensuring the transition is smooth for Deloitte’s Canadian employees.
“This isn’t just a change in process,” says Salverda. “It’s also a change in mindset and culture. It’s helping people think differently about performance management.”
Since making the change, Deloitte has created learning materials, webinars and workshops for managers and supervisors, and has asked employees for feedback. “The surveys that we did show that leaders are engaging the employees,” says Salverda.
A learning process
Despite positive feedback so far, any change is bound to have setbacks, something medical technology company Medtronic learned from undergoing three different performance review processes in the last five years.
According to André Guérin, senior director of human resources at Medtronic Canada, the company originally had a traditional review system with rankings. Employees created objectives at the start of the year, monitored them mid-year and reviewed everything at the end of the year with their managers.
In 2011, Medtronic discontinued performance reviews and ratings and replaced them with what it called performance acceleration, a process that consiste of quarterly meetings. Employees had to generate three goals in each meeting and discuss their performance in detail.
Performance acceleration continued for a few years until Omar Ishrak, Medtronic’s new chief executive officer and chairman, decided to go back to a new version of its traditional performance management system. The meetings excluded rankings and encouraged discussion on career development.
Guérin says Medtronic will likely modify its system once again after acquiring medical product and supplies manufacturer Covidien in 2015. Covidien engaged in employee rankings and Medtronic will have to consider the company’s old performance management framework in light of the merger.
“We’re bouncing all over,” says Guérin. “We’ve had this tradition of changing our process too often, but it’s also an ongoing attempt to get it right. We’re trying to learn from our practice.”
Despite the changes, Guérin says the experience has taught him valuable lessons about creating a performance review process that satisfies everyone. “I strongly believe there’s no [single] way … it should be done. Whatever you try, you are going to have positives and negatives. It’s about determining where [the organization] wants to go and aligning your system with your philosophy.”
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Jann Lee is a Toronto-based journalist.