How Valuable are Yearly Reviews?

It is that time of the year again, where managers and employees alike sit down and attempt to sum up an entire year in a few short pages or less, in a little process I like to call “Writing the Yearly Review”.

I hate this time of year.

::change my voice to that of a child about to throw a tantrum::

Writing yearly reviews is all hard and stuff, they require a lot of thinking and work, and they take me away from architecting, writing code, and playing with cool toys.

::I suggest turning the child voice off for the remainder of the post, however go sick and leave it on…I leave it to the reader’s discretion::

Review preparation and writing is a difficult, tedious process that seemingly must be performed year after year.

::Or if you are a real glutton for punishment prepared every six months.::

Needless to say while I was toiling away on this years batch I started to wonder if what I was doing was providing real value to management or to the employees?  Do all of the man hours spent building the yearly review provide anything worthwhile?

Basically, why the hell are we doing these things, and are they needed in this day and age?

::Before I get too far let me go on record saying I have no idea what HR policies are in place nor do I know if there are any state employment laws that require some form of a yearly review.  Let’s assume no such laws/rules exist…:

First, some sympathy to those who write the reviews…have you ever tried to write one?

Try writing your own review for your last year at work.

Go on, give it a shot.  Here, I’ll provide the format:

Sounds simple enough…well except for that part about the goals.  Do you have clearly defined goals for your current job?  Do you know them by heart?  Can you rattle them off like the names of the people that make up your extended family?

Goal setting is a tricky business.  How can one sum up an entire year’s worth of guidance in a few short sentences that are not only memorable but actionable?

Say for the sake of argument, you do have clear and actionable goals.  Do you remember what you did during the last 12 months that moved you towards those goals?  What were you doing last January that helped you realize your goals?  How about last June?  What about last week?  What were you doing yesterday that moved you closer to your year-end goals?

Do you keep a detailed journal of your actions month-by-month, week-by-week, and day-by-day?  If not, what reference material can you pull from to show you were working towards your goals?

Anyone can write in generalities, “I worked with Johnson on the Widget Tester Project, we both used our communication skills to fully execute the project last March,” but statements like these hardly contain enough detail as to what skills you actually used and how they made the project better.

::Pssst…keep a journal, summarize on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.  Not only does this CYA in the event something goes wrong, you can always look back fondly on all of your accomplishments at the end of the year and put them in your scrap book.  You do scrap book don’t you?  Doesn’t everybody?::

Ok, let’s further pretend you had goals and you had material to show progress on your goals.  What are your goals going to be for next year?  What should you be doing for the next 365 days to better yourself and “move up the corporate ladder”?

Does your company have a ridged corporate structure?  Is there a clearly defined path to move up to the next rung in the ladder?  Can you simply do X, then Y, and finally Z?  What if projects fail to materialize where you could have done X, Y, and Z and you end up doing A, B, C, and D?  Will you be an automatic failure at your next review because no opportunity existed for you to attempt to reach your goals?

We could set out some general goals…“work on public speaking skills,” “become an expert database modeler,” and “become a highly skilled assassin.”

You can set out some general goals, but why bother?  General goals are rarely actionable nor memorable, and the opportunity to work towards those goals may never materialize in the coming year.

To recap:

Based on this likely reality you are living in why write a yearly review?

“But Benjamin,”

::I hear you yelling at your monitor…didn’t know I could hear you did you?  You don’t think Apple puts all those mics on all of those computers and leaves them turned off do you?::

“…I actually have great goals that I have worked towards, I have lots of material to back them up, and we have done a great job creating goals in the past, we should be able to create some new goals this year.  Why not write that yearly review?”

Yes, why not indeed?

See, here’s the rub…this yearly review I’m about to write for you, the one you are begging for me to produce, is going to take quite a few man hours to generate and is late by about 364 days.  The review will contain no surprises to either one of us, and frankly if there are a bunch of surprises in the review neither one of us is doing our job very well.

If your car was making a horrible metallic clicking sound every time you drove to work would you wait for your annual inspection to have someone look at it?  If so remind me not to buy your car second hand even though you say it is in great shape, and you are letting it go for thousands below the blue book value.

Real problems are tackled on the day the occur, or hopefully soon after.  Even minor problems with automobiles don’t fester for long before, hopefully, they are attended to. If your car’s windshield wipers were about to go, how long do you wait to replace them?  It may not get done the next day, but it also doesn’t take a year to go get the item fixed.

If someone is kicking ass for me on a project or job I let them know then and there.  I want to reinforce all good behaviors, skills, and/or commitment while it is happening.  I don’t want to capture it in a note and bring it up a year later…by that time all of the luster of the good “event” has worn off, and recognizing it a year later may actually be insulting.

I say the hell with the yearly review, if you manage people let them know on a regular basis how they are doing, good and bad.  Don’t wait for some arbitrary date a year in the future and attempt to create a document that takes lots of man hours to produce to deliver news hopefully you and your employee already know.

Plus, with this new system in place I won’t have to write your review anymore, I don’t have to use my child tantrum voice, and I can go back to architecting, coding, and playing with cool toys.