Anna Shipman : JFDI

Why and how to do annual performance reviews

23 June 2020 / Leadership

We are coming up to mid-year review time in my group at the FT, and two brilliant engineers on my team, Glynn Phillips and Charlotte Payne, decided to run a session for the other line managers in our group on why we have this process.

Glynn said they were thinking about it at a broader level: “It could be easy for us to answer the “why do we do this” question and it still sounds to some people like ‘Well it’s an FT procedure’.”

They asked for my views, and it turned out that I had a lot to say on this topic. Here is what I replied. [Note: these are my views and not a formal statement of the FT’s views!]

End of year reviews – why do we do them?

The end of year review is an opportunity to reflect on your progress throughout the year.

Ideally you, with your manager, will have set yourself some objectives at the beginning of the year, but even if you have not, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the past year, feel good about things you’ve done well and think about areas where you could have done things better.

In an ideal world we would reflect on our work all the time (that’s why we have retrospectives, for example), but it’s easy for that to fall by the wayside. The end of year review is the one time where, because we have a process that is formalised by the department, we have to make sure we make time for that.

If you’re not interested in being better at your job or furthering your career, the end of year review can be a tedious formality, but if you are, it’s a great opportunity to make sure you carve out time to reflect and plan ahead.

It’s a formalised time to get feedback

The end of year review is an opportunity to get feedback from your manager, reports, peers and people in other groups/departments. [Note: in our department at the FT, we do 360-degree feedback using a unified form twice a year, and people are encouraged to prioritise it at this time].

Again, ideally the feedback loop would be constant; you would always be giving and seeking feedback throughout the working week, but in case this hasn’t happened as often as would be ideal, the end of year review is a formal time to make sure this happens.

We have a great process in Product and Tech where there is an expectation that we give feedback via the unified feedback process at review time. While this can lead to being overloaded with feedback requests, the advantage is that for review time, it’s expected that people prioritise it, so you will end up receiving feedback. If it wasn’t formalised twice a year, again, it would be easy for this to end up not happening.

It’s also useful getting a lot of feedback at once, so you can see what areas multiple people give you feedback on, vs. feedback that is an outlier.

Finally, with feedback, it is a gift, and you can always choose not to accept it. You do not have to act on every piece of feedback you receive.

Be mindful when passing on feedback as a manager

As a manager, it’s important to review the feedback and make sure you are thinking about biases when you go through the feedback with your report.

For example, “Abrasive” is a word that is only applied to women; for men the feedback might say approvingly that he was direct, but more likely it wouldn’t be mentioned. Black workers tend to receive extra scrutiny from managers and more attention on mistakes than white workers, so feedback that would be overlooked for a white person might be mentioned for a black person. And there are many, many other examples.

[Edit, 11/09/2020: adding this extremely useful resource: Bias Interruptors; examples of how bias can appear in performance reviews and steps to address them, shared with me by the excellent Keran Braich.]

It’s also very important to make sure you ask a wide variety of people, not just the ones your report has suggested you ask. I usually ask my reports if there is anyone they’ve had conflict with to get feedback on; it may not be the most positive or constructive feedback, but it will often be very useful, even if you both choose to disregard it.

So while the feedback is very useful, it’s important as a manager you don’t take it as the final say, but as one of the factors that helps you form an overall picture, tell your report if you suspect they should take the feedback with a pinch of salt, and listen to them when they point out biases you may not have seen.

We give a performance review mark

For the FT, the output of the performance review is a mark, nominally on a scale of 1–5. Roughly speaking, 3 is where we should all be at. 3 means you are performing well against challenging objectives. 4 means that you are exceeding those objectives; it’s good to get a 4 but also is an indication that perhaps you are due for a promotion as your current objectives are not challenging enough. 5 means you are really knocking it out of the park; you are performing absolutely exceptionally. It’s rare to get a 5.

At the other end of the scale, a 2 means you are not meeting your objectives, and if you get a 2 then you and your manager need to look at doing performance improvement, to get you up to a level where you are meeting your objectives. A 2 is not necessarily a bad thing; it can be an extremely useful wake-up call that your peformance isn’t aligned with what the organisation is expecting from you, and is a good opportunity to get the support you need to get back on track.

I don’t think 1 is a mark that is ever actually given to someone. If someone is in line to get a 1, then they probably should not be working here, or at least not in that role (so it’s not a normal scale).

For the FT the value of the mark is to see where there are areas that need attention. A 2 indicates to HR that a manager needs support to do performance improvement. A 4 or 5 year after year for the same person indicates they are in the wrong job. A team where every member is getting a 5 indicates something that needs closer attention.

It’s a blunt instrument, but understandable for an organisation of > 1,000 people.

It can support conversations with your manager as well. “What would I need to do to get a 4 this year?” is a perfectly reasonable question and can help focus the mind.

The mid-year review – why do we do that?

Because the end of year review process results in a mark, the mid-year review process is an opportunity to check where you are heading. Nothing in an end of year review should come as a surprise to you – if there are issues or great performance, your manager should already have talked to you about those things – but the mid-year review is a formal point at which to talk to your manager about your trajectory, and review your objectives to see if you are actually half-way along with them at this point or if, instead, you need to change them.

Again, all these are things that in an ideal world you would always be thinking about and reflecting on, but in the day to day it’s very easy to forget to focus on the bigger picture of your own personal development.

How would I gauge whether someone is performing at a good standard?

Giving someone a mark is a combination of how they are performing against their objectives, how they are doing relative to their level in the career competencies framework, the feedback you receive, and anything else you know about their work (for example, you may have seen them present at Snapshot [Note: our monthly team meeting], or seen some good pull requests, or thoughtful pull request reviews, or seen them asking good question in the dev huddle, etc).

It can be hard to know how someone is doing if you don’t work with them day to day (for example if they are in a different team) but when you put together all the sources of information you have, you can build up a good picture.

They are really worth doing

My view is that the mid-year review and end of year review are really useful; even though it can involve a lot of admin from both manager and report, it’s a great opportunity to make time for the important work of your own career development and to help your colleagues with theirs.

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