Protocol | Workplace

Performance reviews suck. These tech companies are trying to make them better.

Slack integrations and keywords and AI, oh my!

An illustration of a performance review on a clipboard.

Time will tell how smart HR technology has the potential to be, or how smart users want it to be.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Arguably nothing elicits more of a collective groan at work than performance review season. Managers hate giving them. Employees theoretically want them, but dread receiving them. It's as clear how much time and effort they take as it is unclear how useful formal performance reviews actually are in measuring and evaluating performance.

It's an arena ripe for disruption.

A flurry of startups are attempting just that and raising a lot of money in the process.

Global year-to-date VC investment into HR tech is approaching $12 billion, according to an August report from WorkTech. One leading HR software company, Lattice, just announced its expansion to Europe and an investment of $110 million in the UK. Other more nascent startups like ChartHop and OnLoop are attracting millions from top-tier investors.

So what's wrong with performance reviews?

Performance reviews are performed by people, and "people are biased," said Dr. Evelyn Carter, a managing director at Paradigm, a San-Francisco-based strategy firm that works with tech companies on their DEI goals.

One example is what Dr. Carter refers to as the "prove it again" trap: Research shows that marginalized groups like women and people of color tend to be evaluated on the results they deliver — can they "prove it again?" — while dominant groups are evaluated based on pure potential.

So how are these new HR tools attempting to make performance reviews suck less, and how can managers circumvent their own biases?

Establish a consistent set of metrics by which to evaluate people.

And make sure they're tailored to the job and level. You don't necessarily want to judge an engineer by the same standards as an operations person, said Carter.

Having clear metrics for evaluating success also helps people see what they need to do to get promoted, according to Lattice CEO and Co-Founder Jack Altman. Lattice, for example, has a section called "Competencies," which allows companies to articulate the expectations of each role, as well as the skills required for promotion. Those competencies are then pulled into the performance review form, and managers can rate how well the employee has fulfilled each one.

Up the cadence of reviews. Take notes all the time.

The biggest problem with traditional performance reviews is how infrequently they happen, which can introduce recency bias, according to Ian White, founder and CEO/CTO of ChartHop, an org chart startup that has a performance review component.

Most HR experts today recommend shifting from the annual review cycle to at least twice a year, or even quarterly. And they suggest supplementing those reviews with weekly one-on-one meetings to go over goals and feedback. That way, managers can keep regular tabs on how their reports are doing, rather than relying on memory to write a review once a year.

Taking the stress out of writing performance reviews is a major premise of OnLoop, a new mobile-first performance review app that aims to make the "data collection process more bite-sized and approachable," according to CEO and Co-Founder Projjal Ghatak.

OnLoop users are encouraged to evaluate team members once a week using "captures" in three potential categories: "celebrate," "improve" or "goal." One of the biggest issues with giving feedback, said Ghatak, is finding the language to describe a person or encounter, which OnLoop bypasses by prompting users to select relevant "tags" to input in each capture, like "growth mindset," "authentic self" or "subject matter expertise."

Collect feedback and data points from all directions, and automate it.

Remember the pain of writing extemporaneously about someone once a year with no other context? Another way to counter that, according to Altman, is through clever Slack integrations. Lattice can take compliments from a company's existing #praise channel, for example, and automatically feed them to its platform, adding another point of reference for managers while they're writing their reviews.

Lattice isn't the only company dabbling in off-platform integrations to streamline performance reviews. Betterworks, a performance-management system focused on OKRs and goals, has an even more literal feature that integrates project-management tools like Asana or Jira into an employee's "performance snapshot."

For example, a marketing manager might have an objective of revamping a website, which might be measured in a series of assigned Asana tickets or tasks. When that employee completes one ticket out of 10, that objective would display a 10% completion on Betterworks, explained Dennis Villahermosa, the company's senior director of product marketing.

Consider performance ratings. Or don't. They're controversial.

Having objective criteria by which to evaluate people as well as a rubric for what success looks like in each role is important from a company inclusion perspective, according to most DEI experts.

Having that numeric score also allows companies to compare performance ratings across the board and analyze them for potential areas of bias. For example, if more female employees received lower ratings across a department than male employees, perhaps there's an issue there, explained White.

Some companies, like Zenefits, are moving away from issuing ratings. "Where ratings get tricky is they end up being opinionated and subjective even in all of that effort to try to avoid being subjective," said Zenefits' VP of People Operations Danny Speros.

Most agree that the worst thing to do is to give stack rankings, pitting employees against each other as Microsoft notoriously used to do.

Actually use performance reviews to help make promotion and raise decisions fair.

Doing that is easier said than done, especially when your performance review platform isn't integrated into the rest of your HR management systems. Integrating these systems is ChartHop's whole selling point.

The platform allows executives to "slice and dice" their employee data and compare performance ratings against compensation and promotion data, which allows for more agility and continuous planning, according to White. If a person has three outstanding performance ratings in a row but hasn't received a raise in that same period, maybe they deserve a bigger equity refresh, he explained.

Do you want AI to get involved? Maybe.

At the end of the day, managers are still responsible for writing summaries of how their direct reports are doing and aligning with their goals. Or are they? OnLoop's loftiest goal is trying to simplify that process by integrating all the captures — the kudos, the constructive feedback, the self-reflections — into an AI-generated natural language summary that managers can then use to write their employee reviews.

They're not alone. Part of Betterworks' future plan also includes developing "intelligence engines" that would make suggestions to managers informed by performance data, said Villahermosa.

Time will tell how smart HR technology has the potential to be, or how smart users want it to be. What's clear is that, as with all AI systems, if the humans that create the tool are biased, the tool may very well end up biased too.

In other words: Managers, it's still on you.

Theranos’ investor pitches go on trial

Prosecutors in the Elizabeth Holmes fraud case are now highlighting allegations the company sought to mislead investors.

The fresh details of unproven claims made about the viability of Theranos' blood tests and efforts to conceal errors when demonstrating testing equipment added to the evidence against Holmes, who is accused of fraud in her role leading the company.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Theranos trial continued this week with testimony from Daniel Edlin, a former product manager at the blood-testing startup, and Shane Weber, a scientist from Pfizer. Their testimonies appeared to bolster the government's argument that Holmes intentionally defrauded investors and patients.

The fresh details about audacious and unproven claims made about the viability of Theranos' blood tests and efforts to conceal errors when demonstrating testing equipment added to the evidence against Holmes, who is accused of fraud in her role leading the company.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporting fellow at Protocol, based out of Los Angeles. Previously, she worked for Ernst & Young, where she researched and wrote about the future of work, emerging technologies and startups. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where she studied business and philosophy. She can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Protocol | Policy

8 takeaways from states’ new filing against Google

New details have been unsealed in the states' antitrust suit against Google for anticompetitive behavior in the ads market.

Google is facing complaints by government competition enforcers on several fronts.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Up to 22%: That's the fee Google charges publishers for sales on its online ad exchanges, according to newly unredacted details in a complaint by several state attorneys general.

The figure is just one of the many details that a court allowed the states to unveil Friday. Many had more or less remained secrets inside Google and the online publishing industry, even through prior legal complaints and eager public interest.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Protocol | Workplace

This tech founder uses a converted Sprinter van as an office on wheels

The CEO of productivity startup Rock likes to work on the road. Here's how he does it — starting with three different WiFi hotspots.

Kenzo Fong, founder and CEO of the 20-person productivity software startup Rock, has been working out of his converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van since the pandemic began.

Photo: Kenzo Fong/Rock

Plenty of techies have started companies in garages. Try running a startup from a van.

In San Francisco, one software company founder has been using a converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van — picture an Amazon delivery vehicle — as a mobile office.

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Protocol | Policy

Most Americans want AI regulation — and they want it yesterday

In a poll, people said they wanted to see artificial intelligence technologies develop in the U.S. — alongside rules governing their use.

U.S. lawmakers have only just begun the long process of regulating the use of AI.

Photo: Louis Velazquez/Unsplash

Nearly two-thirds of Americans want the U.S to regulate the development and use of artificial intelligence in the next year or sooner — with half saying that regulation should have begun yesterday, according to a Morning Consult poll. Another 13% say that regulation should start in the next year.

"You can thread this together," Austin Carson, founder of new nonprofit group SeedAI and former government relations lead for Nvidia, said in an email. "Half or more Americans want to address all of these things, split pretty evenly along ideological lines."

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

ai
Latest Stories