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How Am I Doing?
Published Friday, October 13, 2017

Joe Army, CEO of Vapotherm, presenting Glenn Hanner, director of international operations, the 2016 Impact Player of the Year award. Courtesy photo.

Many employees have mixed feelings about their anniversaries. If they work for a Best Company, they can expect celebrations, bonuses and general appreciation.

But the milestone can also be coupled with the dreaded annual review—a 30- to 60-minute verdict that many employees and managers do not find helpful. In fact, rather than a barrage of pros and cons all at once, many employees are calling for more frequent, informal check-ins to address the good, bad and ugly of their performances.

“There are managers and supervisors in the workforce who just surprise people with what I call the ‘leave alone, zap’—you leave them alone all year and then zap them with all the things you didn’t like,” says David Greer, CEO of Wire Belt Company of America in Londonderry. “But if the company and managers are doing their job right, everyone should know exactly where they stand every day.”

While there has not been a complete abandonment of the formal, annual review with our Best Companies to Work For winners, many either supplement the review process with regular check-ins or offer a multiple review approach.

“If a company’s goal is continuous professional development among its staff, then employees need to get feedback on an ongoing basis,” says Tom Raffio, president and CEO of Northeast Delta Dental in Concord. “If you provide feedback early in the year, employees can work on that, which means better results for the company. But if you save feedback for an annual review, you’ve lost six to nine months of potential progress.”

No Surprises
Employees aren’t the only ones who take issue with annual reviews. “I hate annual reviews; I think they’re a nightmare,” says Joe Army, president and CEO of Vapotherm in Exeter. “The reason they came to be is people don’t like having those conversations voluntarily. But to me, there’s no bigger waste of time. If you’re doing your job as a leader, you and your people are constantly giving each other feedback.”

That’s why Army and his staff decided to “blow the whole thing up.” The company now holds quarterly reviews, where employees write recaps of their performances and then review them with their supervisors to get their views. Army says these conversations are “way more important than the paperwork.”

Army also invites a group of five to six different employees each month to an informal lunch to discuss their perspectives on how the company is doing. The company receives further employee feedback from a regular, anonymous manager effectiveness survey, which Army says is key to honest feedback.

“I want bomb throwers,” he says. “I want people to tell me what we’re doing is bullshit. It helps us know how to coach our leaders on how to be more effective.”

Well Sense Health Plan in Manchester scratched its annual performance review 18 months ago, switching to quarterly meetings between employees and their managers that are called connections meetings. “[The annual reviews] were too rigid and didn’t provide an opportunity for continuous improvement and was too tied with raises,” says Lisabritt Solsky, executive director of Well Sense.

In the connections meetings, managers and employees discuss where the employee is excelling or tracking progress made on goals. “We have a little bit of conversation on areas we want to direct more attention to in the next three to four months—a corporate goal or personal or professional goal,” Solsky says.

It’s also an opportunity for employees to tell supervisors what they need from their managers, she says.

Medtronic Transformative Solutions in Portsmouth also has a formal quarterly feedback system with each quarter dedicated to a different topic, such as goal setting, career development or doing a formal check in, says Suzanne Foster, vice president and general manager.  

Some companies say adding at least a mid-year review helps tie professional development to corporate goals and increases communication between employees and management.

At Merchants Fleet Management in Hooksett, the company’s executive team establishes business and employee performance expectations at the beginning of each year and provides employees with a definition of what meets and exceeds expectations for each of the company’s goals. Managers work with employees with these expectations to create an individual performance and development plans.

“It’s like having a teacher pass out the final at the beginning of the school year,” says Glen Villano, CEO of Merchants. “They know in advance what they need to do throughout the year, and our managers help support their progress through our mid-year and annual reviews”

Giving the Boss Feedback
While many executives maintain an “open door policy,” Pax World Management President and CEO Joseph Keefe found that several employees didn't take advantage of it because they thought he was too busy. So, Keefe schedules an annual, one-on-one meeting with each of his roughly 50 employees to discuss whatever is on his or her mind.

“I schedule an hour, but if it goes over, then it goes over,” says Keefe. “This is an opportunity for them to talk with me about anything they’d like to talk about. Employees find that direct access valuable, and I find it invaluable. I get great feedback and some not so great feedback that helps us address issues with the company we may not have been aware of.”

Other companies conduct regular employee engagement surveys to ensure they have a pulse on the workforce. Among them is Medtronic, which uses pulse surveys to measure engagement, innovation and inclusion, and managers receive reports on how their team rated. “Managers use those to have team discussions,” Foster says. An employee committee is charged with digging into the results of every pulse survey and developing programs to meet employee needs. “Anything they say we should do, we do,” Foster says.

Stay Interviews
Loftware in Portsmouth takes reviews a step further by conducting “stay interviews” with employees to make sure the company is doing what is needed to engage employees. President and CEO Robert O’Connor says rather than conducting exit interviews when it is too late to keep an employee, the stay interviews give the company insight on what employees enjoy about their jobs, what concerns they have and why they might leave. He says the interviews help increase retention.

“Sometimes people have said they love the company but not their role, and that allowed us to keep the employee while moving them to a role that they enjoy and feel is a more fulfilling career path,” says O’Connor.

Separating Feedback and Money
While negotiating raises is common in annual reviews, W.S. Badger Company in Gilsum keeps financial discussions separate from its tri-annual reviews. “Our review process is what we call an alignment building, where team leaders and their team members collaborate to set goals,” says Rebecca Hamilton, vice president of research and development. “Employees drive the process and set goals that connect to the company’s mission as well as their own performance.”

Elbit Systems of America in Merrimack instituted a mid-year review of goals in addition to its annual review (which includes self-evaluations by employees) and separated the performance review from its financial discussions about raises. “When you used to sit down, employees wanted to know what it means to my pocket,” says Real Madore, vice president of operations.  Now there is a formal review at the beginning of the year to set goals, a mid-year check-in and a separate compensation discussion.

Making the Switch
Many of the Best Companies that still use an annual review are considering change. While Bank of NH in Laconia has a structured annual review process, president and CEO Paul Falvey says the bank is assessing the situation and will likely supplement the review process with formal check-ins that are already taking place informally.

“These check-ins have helped us to foster comfortable dialogue among managers and staff and improve our culture,” Falvey says. “We have a number of people who want to formalize these check-ins, because millennials and the next generation not only appreciate consistent formalized feedback, they expect it.”

While Klüber Lubrication in Londonderry follows a more traditional review path, according to CEO Ralf Kraemer, the  company makes a point of recognizing outstanding performance.

“If they go the extra mile and nobody recognizes that, they might be less likely to do that in the future. It’s good business practice to recognize employees and not take their hard work for granted," he says.

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