Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Performance “Seasons” Are Useless — Use Anniversary Reviews Instead

I was catching up with a friend yesterday, an engineering manager. He vented for a bit about how swamped he is because he’s in the middle of “performance season”: he’s going to be spending the next few weeks writing performance reviews, reviewing them with his manager and with HR, delivering them to the team, and slogging his way through his organization’s terrible HRIS to record the reviews. And this heavy workload will be made more difficult by a big dose of emotional labor: even if every review is well-received, they’re still stressful to deliver.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s nothing magical about October — or any other month — that requires performance reviews to be written in that month.

The solution is simple: anniversary reviews, not calendar-driven ones. Here’s how this works:

  • Each person’s “performance clock” starts when there’s a substantial role change: new hire, moving to a new team, a substantial promotion, major new responsibilities, and so forth.
  • When that “clock” hits one year1, it’s time for a performance review.
  • Optional, but recommended: if, before that one-year mark, there’s another substantial role change, that should trigger a review to capture the performance information from the previous role2. It also resets the performance clock for the next review.

This system has several advantages:

  • It spreads out the work of performance reviews throughout the year. A half-dozen reviews all at once disrupt your work for at least a week, but it’s not too difficult to schedule a single review into a more-or-less normal work week.
  • Similarly, it spreads out the emotional labor of writing and delivering reviews. After a week of delivering reviews, I am exhausted. But once again, a single review doesn’t drain the emotional tanks much.
  • It avoids situations where you end up needing to write a review for someone you don’t yet know well. If someone joins your team in September, and you try to write a review for them in October, it’ll either just capture a month’s worth of data – pretty useless – or you’ll need to base the review on secondhand feedback from their previous manager. Better organizations will have a minimum amount of time that someone needs to be on a team before they get a review, but that’s still not ideal: you’ll end up waiting 18 months or whatever for a first review, far too long.
  • Performing reviews throughout the year mean that the skills you build tend to stick better. If you only do them yearly, you’ll likely forget whatever you learned by the time the next season rolls around. But if your next review comes in a month or two, you’re more likely to retain and build on your skillset. That’s a virtuous cycle: it makes each review easier, so they take less time, so you can do them more often and capture more data, and so on.

I can’t fully describe how much easier this system is on everyone involved. Try it out, I promise you’ll love it.

  1. I’m using “year” here because that’s a typical cadence for reviews, but there’s nothing magical about a year, either. You could use seven months, 24 weeks, or whatever. I do think a year is about the longest you should go in between reviews: much more than that and you risk not capturing enough performance data to be useful. ↩︎

  2. There’s a slightly special case when someone leaves the organization: you probably want to skip sharing the outgoing review with them, unless they’re leaving on really good terms. ↩︎