Not many people admit to liking paperwork. But in some cases, I’m a huge advocate.
When I left the military, part of me rejoiced at leaving behind the bureaucratic, paperwork heavy nightmare that is today's typical Army officer experience. But when I transitioned to the startup world, where having no process (for anything non-tech related) is not only normal, it’s often celebrated, I missed the regularity of the Army evaluation system. It was a concrete process for receiving feedback, something sorely lacking in most startup environments.
I’m not alone in wanting feedback. According to a study by PwC, 72% of millennial respondents wished they received regular, daily or weekly, feedback. In a study cited by Harvard Business Review, 72% of survey respondents attributed performance improvement to getting negative feedback from their managers.
In the Army, I knew where I stood in my boss’s eyes, as well as how I ranked among my peers — not only from our regular performance conversations, but also because each counseling ended black and white proof: a packet of papers documenting exactly what we discussed. For the last three years, I’ve worked for four different startups where you can probably imagine things work a little differently. Before I talk about how to add some standardization to your organization, let's get on the same page.
I left the Army in 2016, so I can’t speak to the current process; when I served, this is how it worked:
While I’m more than happy not to have my physical fitness a consideration on whether I’m deemed worthy of promotion, I do miss aspects of the process. In the civilian, startup world, feedback is often sporadic, unstructured, irregular and at the whim of your supervisor.
At the places with some structure, the review process is often made up by whoever is acting as the human resource manager. Out of the four startups I've worked for, only one had a full-time HR person for the majority of the time I worked there. The rest had employees pulling reluctant, barebones double duty, or none at all. As you might imagine, the resulting thrown together review process was a lot of Calibri font and questions found from a quick Google search.
In many cases, the self-review was so open-ended it left me wondering what exactly to write; my peers faced similar questions/concerns — while most people who seek out and thrive in a startup environment are comfortable with ambiguity, when it comes to promotion and pay changes, people tend to want clear structure, understandably. But in companies where it’s easier to fire fast than to work out kinks in the feedback chain, managers often default to using observation and anecdotes instead of a formal process.
I’m happy to say that here at Fairygodboss, we’ve started a much more formal review process now that we have a Director of People. However, you don’t have to wait until you have HR backup to get some sort of process in place yourself; I myself didn’t. When my first direct report started, we developed a regular, weekly check-in where feedback was a normal part of the conversation, and, we had a written 90-day review, which isn’t required by our current standards.
What's actually bothering you about your company's performance reviews? Do you feel like it's your only chance to talk about getting a raise? Is it the only time you receive feedback from your manager? Is it the one time of year you actually talk about your career development and promotion opportunities? Or, is it the actual performance review itself you have issue with — the format, content, rating system?
If it's any of the first three questions, your solution lies in getting on your boss's calendar more frequently. If you don't have a regular one-on-one meeting, see if your boss would be open to setting one up; outline what you hope to discuss, and see if she's receptive.
As for gathering feedback, ask your boss first. If that proves unhelpful, ask your peers and others in your field. Join a professional association and learn how other people do your same job.
So, what about those who have an issue with the actual performance review itself?
Let's say you think your company's review format lacks a section, such as short-term and long-term goals, has too cumbersome a rating system to be useful, or is hosted on a janky third-party site that never works. See if you can talk to the process decision-maker in your organization (for those with HR, that's their function). When you list your concerns, give possible alternatives. For example, maybe the goal problem would be solved by tacking on a few sections just for your team; for the third-party site, maybe it's finding a better HR platform that your company may not know exists. Before you air your grievances, brainstorm ideas about how to solve the problem — you'll make much more headway when you demonstrate that you're trying to be a team player and not a complainer.
This third point applies to those with direct reports, or those with organizational influence: in the absence of process, you're free to create your own. Think about the needs of your employees and the important aspects of their jobs; how do their actions tie to company goals? What qualities do you think are fair to evaluate? Thinking about what feedback is necessary to create the outcomes you want from your staff is a core concern as is outlining the steps to advancement for each report. At the end of the day, if you can craft a performance review based on the most useful ones you had in the past while thinking about the needs of your current company, you'll be far better off than most organizations.