August 13, 2021

Performance reviews: An opportunity for conversation

HR leaders hear time and time again how important it is to lead with compassion and empathy for their employees. The pandemic has radically shifted the way we work by breaking down the barriers between our professional lives and our personal lives, exposing concerns and issues that have always been present, but addressing them now feels dire. Still, it isn’t easy to weigh the benefits of maintaining a supportive environment for employees against the fact that employee performance impacts business outcomes.

The shift towards a more human-centric approach has been evolving for years, but the last 18 months have propelled this shift forward at a breathless pace. When it comes to feedback and performance reviews, the question has become, “How do we take into account the ways that trauma and grief have affected an employee’s performance in the past year, without grading on a curve?” 

Bravely Co-Founder, Sarah Sheehan, offers her advice on structuring performance reviews and having hard conversations with employees in these trying times. Managers can make the performance review just a bit less daunting by having a plan, acting with intentionality, and being open to dialogue. 

Step 1: Gather information

“Create an easy process that encourages open sharing and transparency. Ask questions that explore what may have made this year more challenging. It all begins with building a foundation of trust, asking open-ended coaching questions, and modeling vulnerability with specific examples of how your own changed circumstances since 2020 affected your life at work.” 

Performance reviews are an opportunity to align with your employees on what’s working and what’s not. By staying curious and open to their perspective, HR Leaders can stay empowered in finding solutions to the gaps they may discover. You have an opportunity to build trust and psychological safety within your work culture. 

“Formal performance review conversations can be intense and can come with heavy prep work from both sides of the table. Simplify the process for everyone by asking yourself, ‘How much of the prep work that goes into a performance review actually needs to happen to make this a valuable process this year?” Don’t assume that everything you’d normally do is actually a necessity.’

Step 2: Know Your success metrics 

“Acknowledge the effort and extra lengths people had to go to this year to get their work done, including across different personal circumstances like childcare, changed living arrangements, or health concerns. Separate your assessment of effort from the assessment of outcomes, and give the two equal weight. The latter is still necessary — both for individual learning and organizational success — but it’s especially crucial right now that the feedback you give about measurable outcomes doesn’t discount the very real effort people have made in the face of new challenges.” 

In January 2021, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from one in ten adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019.

In companies that move to a hybrid/remote model, there is a high potential for issues to arise around equity and inclusion. For example, how can an employee working from home be sure they aren’t unfairly compared to someone working in the office alongside a shared manager? That’s why it’s more important than ever that performance reviews don’t compare employees to each other, but rather are specific to the individual and expectations set for their role and level.”

Step 3: Deliver with intentionality

“Always lead with kindness and empathy, and remember that despite the pandemic, employees are still looking to develop skills and grow their careers. Throughout 2020, people using Bravely coaching have talked about their individual development in the same way they did before COVID-19*. The pandemic has changed life as we know it, but peoples’ ambitions and need for feedback and growth are as strong as ever.

Honest feedback should be delivered thoughtfully, through the lens of helping that employee see their path forward. If they’ve shared their future career goals with you (and I believe it’s part of every manager’s job to know what their direct reports want their futures to look like), use those as a framework.”

In the first quarter of 2020, 37.1% of sessions had success in a current role or career planning as the primary topic. In the next quarter — the first full quarter in which the impact of COVID-19 was truly unavoidable — that percentage increased to 39.9%.

Let’s de-stress the performance review.

These last 18 months have been some of the most stressful times in many of our lives. By getting clear on our intentions and ideal outcomes of performance reviews, we as HR leaders can be grounded in our humanity and compassion for our employees and not add unnecessary stress to the process.

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