The Annual Review: Stay, Change, or Go Quietly Into the Night?

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Learning about topics in a field you're relatively new to is a bit like listening in on a couple's quarrel.

Not in the same room as the couple, obviously, but with your ear against a cup, butted against the wall.

You get bits and pieces, but not the whole story.

In the books, articles, and podcasts I've been soaking up over the last few months, one thing is certain: the annual review is a complex creature.

Should it stay? Should it change? Should it go quietly into the business night?

Is it old, outdated, and slow or is it still a key method to deliver feedback to employees who hunger for it?

I'm sure there are many factors that go into the decision of what the annual review looks like for a particular organization.

whether you're a mom and pop retail store of five people or Google (over 85,000) employees, creating a culture of frequent feedback is a tall order that if met, can transform a company.

Up til now, I've had the privilege to take part in this annual ritual within the tech space (Squarespace and Meetup) and in retail (Whole Foods Market). From an outside-of-HR perspective, this undertaking of annual reviews seems like quite the behemoth. 

Here are some snippets of what I've encountered about this topic over the last few months:

  • Trynka Shineman, CEO of Vistaprint, in an episode of The Future of Work (25 minutes in), explained why their company did away with the annual review altogether.
    The short of it: The annual review created an "awkward conversation" where managers have control of this hefty feedback/information. It simply wasn't creating the sort of environment Vistaprint wanted for their employees - where they could truly develop.
    Key question to ask: What do we aspire to as an organization and what do we want feedback to look like?
  • During an interview from the Knowledge@Wharton podcast, former Netflix CHRO, Patty McCord was asked what elements of HR would she identify as outdated. Her answer:  "One of my favorites is the annual performance review. I don’t think it’s very effective anymore. That one just needs a big rethink." 
  • In his book The Employee Experience Advantage, Jacob Morgan discusses how "in many ways employee engagement surveys are simply replacing the annual review and are becoming the very thing that organizations are trying to get rid of!". Why don't annual reviews (or surveys) cut it? Morgan adds: "Anything related to people should be measured continuously." Perhaps that's one of the greatest drawbacks. Business moves fast. Why the tremendous energy and focus on a one-time-a-year event?
  • In his book Work Rules!, Laszlo Bock, former SVP of People Operations at Google, shared three key learnings about his experience with performance management at Google: consensus is impossible, people take performance management seriously, and experimentation was vital.

Those three nuggets from Bock can be useful for any sized organization. 

Is feedback vitally important? Yes.

Does it need to come in the form of an annual review? Maybe. Maybe not.

There's so much more that can be said about this topic, but it was interesting to get a snapshot of how leaders are thinking about the annual review. What's certain is there's plenty of room for reinvention and rethinking for an HR team that believes in the power and purpose of continuous feedback.


What do you think? What's been your experience of the annual review? If there's one thing you'd change, what would it be?