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.
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.
How performance reviews worked in the Army.
I left the Army in 2016, so I can’t speak to the current process; when I served, this is how it worked:
- In the first 30 days of assuming a role, your supervisor was required to conduct initial counseling. Your duties, tasks, responsibilities, and expected behavior would be spelled out on a standard form, filled in by your boss. During the counseling, ideally, you would discuss the document and go over any questions or concerns. Then, you would each sign and date to acknowledge the session and the outlined expectations.
- Each quarter, you’d have a counseling session — again, outlined on a standard form — where you’d receive feedback on your performance and steps to take to meet new goals.
- When it was time for your evaluation report (AKA performance/annual review), a yearly requirement, or sooner if your boss changed out (in the Army, most people are in a position for one to three years, on different timelines, so it was a common occurrence to have two bosses in one year), you would see how you performed compared to the goals and expectations laid out in each quarterly counseling. You were ranked against your peers, and also ranked on qualities such as character and intellect, as well as "presence," which included performance on your physical fitness test.
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 you can do if your company doesn't take performance reviews seriously.
1. Start with what you can control.
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?
2. Give possible solutions.
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 complain
3. Create your own.
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.