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Should They Stay or Should They Go? Pandemic Performance Reviews


After reading the headlines of the morning paper or skimming your online newsfeed, it is hard to deny that 2020 was a year of dramatic change. From the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak to increased regulations around international travel and the uptick in children and parents learning and working from home, change is in the air. The business market has seen more than its fair share of fluctuations in response to the pandemic as well. And with that comes the challenge of continuing to support your employees’ development in an environment that may feel unstable or even temporary.


Take performance reviews, for example. Word on the street is that many employers have chosen to postpose or even cancel review processes scheduled to take place over the last seven months. While it may be tempting to skip altogether, it is important to consider the message you are sending to employees. Let's unpack some common reasons why employers halted performance reviews and insight into how you can support performance during challenging times.


“We are waiting until things go back to normal.”

During the first few weeks of the pandemic in the United States, companies played the “wait and see” game, and for good reason. Today’s leaders did not have experience dealing with this specific type of crisis and there was no rule book from which to draw. As a short-term strategy, many standard meetings and internal processes were put on hold so that companies could address urgent issues. Company meetings, open job requisitions, and (you guessed it) performance reviews were postponed until things went back to normal.


Weeks have turned to months. While some employers are still deferring the decision, the time has come to talk about how to handle the elephant in the room. How will you support performance management moving forward? There is simply no guarantee that work will ever go back to normal. Case in point – how often have you heard the phrase “new normal” mentioned lately? Additionally, and more than ever, motivated employees are still looking for feedback. They still want to know how they can grow and if there is a future for them at your company. If your company is waiting to provide developmental opportunities after things go back to normal, you may just be giving another message to your star employees that they are better off at another company.


“We don’t want to give more bad news.”

Some companies may shy away from completing performance reviews because the messages they need to share are not good. That information could be macro i.e. the company is not doing well or there will be limited year-end raise or bonus potential. Or the message could be more individualized i.e. an employee’s performance has been subpar after repeated coaching conversations.


Are employees really in a state of mind to hear “more bad news?” The answer, surprisingly enough, is yes. Employees are likely aware that something is wrong, and in this case, their manager is adding insult to injury by avoiding the topic at hand. Refusing to address hard topics has a ripple effect as well. It affects the engagement and wellbeing of employees even in the good times. One of the signs of a good manager is the ability to be transparent and forthright even when times get tough. The Forbes article, “How Great Leaders Deliver Bad News,” points out that when a manager is honest in sharing difficult news, people assume that they will be brave in other ways as well. Employees develop further trust in their manager knowing that he or she is not going to hide information. And trust is important when dealing with chaos.


"We don’t think our employees find value in the process."

Many organizations’ performance management processes are bogged down with bureaucracy. The process has been referred to as an “administrative nightmare” by participants. Managers are overtaxed by the number of reviews to complete in addition to a large workload on their desk. Most importantly, employees do not find value in this tedious process.


This is a lightbulb moment! Since the onset of Covid-19, we have seen businesses face new challenges and rise to the occasion in record time. Companies are overriding complicated rules and procedures to solve novel problems and the change management climate allows businesses to fast-track the implementation of these solutions. Jeroen Kraaijenbrink notes, “Covid-19 shows that as soon as there is a strong enough stimulus, things can change.”


Why not apply the same level of innovation to overhaul your ineffective performance review process? This injection of energy tells your employees you want to invest in them even during hard times. You have the freedom to be creative and try something new. A tip? Keep it simple. Get rid of complicated online forms and focus on one-on-one live conversations. Employee development is more important now than ever.


"We do not want to evaluate goals that are no longer realistic."

You started 2020 as a manager with a plan. You worked with each employee to set thoughtful objectives aligning their contributions to the company’s goals. You patted yourself on the back for setting such clear expectations and then, BAM! The world is turned upside down. Your company was forced to cut expenses, which may have included staff, and find new ways to engage clients. Being asked to conduct performance reviews during all of this sounds like a joke. Employees would be asked to rate goals that are no longer valid. Do you even want to remind them of all the great things they were supposed to do this year that are no longer possible?


The short answer is yes. Employees want to talk about anything that has changed during these uncertain times whether that includes their goals or preferred communication style. Invite a candid dialogue on how goals have shifted (even if in hindsight). Ask a few questions to hear how they have evolved during this time of change. For example, what have you learned about doing your job when faced with a change in resources, tools, or direction? Show your flexibility by acknowledging that this year’s performance review may look different than those from years past.


Long story short, leadership and managers will need to find the right formula to support employees long term development plans.

References

Anderson, E. (March 6, 2013). How Great Leaders Deliver Bad News. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikaandersen/2013/03/06/how-great-leaders-deliver-bad-news/#665690623dc6


Kraaijenbring, , J. (March 23, 2020). The Bright Side of Covid-10: Seven Opportunities of the Current Pandemic. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeroenkraaijenbrink/2020/03/23/the-bright-side-of-corona-seven-opportunities-of-the-current-pandemic/#40b17ffa785c


Navarra, K. (May, 19, 2020). How are Companies Handling Performance Reviews during the Coronavirus Pandemic? SHRM. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/organizational-and-employee-development/pages/how-are-companies-handling-performance-reviews-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic.aspx


Schrage, M. (June 1, 2020). Rethinking Performance Management for Post-Pandemic Success. MIT Sloan Management Review. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/rethinking-performance-management-for-post-pandemic-success/

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