How to Update Your Company’s Review Sessions for Current Employees

By Dummies Press

To stay competitive, companies have to adapt and adopt a progressive feedback structure. The ones leading the pack are those whose leaders recognize that their talent development strategies need to evolve with the changing demographics of their workforce. Successful feedback and reviews are absolutely critical. Oftentimes an employee’s exit can be traced back to a poor review session with his manager. If you’re not rethinking your review session to appeal to Millennials’ unique needs, you’re going to slowly (or quickly) see your turnover numbers creep up.

When Baby Boomers entered the workforce, they entered into stiff competition with millions of peers to try and get ahead. In order to better understand how they stacked up with others, Boomers collectively created the annual feedback process. At the time, this yearly review was considered revolutionary.

Fast forward 20 years and you had Gen Xers growing weary of the style and infrequency of the yearly evaluation. It felt too formal, too delayed and, in a way, insincere. Xers had different objectives and priorities from their Boomer predecessors. The old model wasn’t working for them, so they shook things up by asking for more regular and transparent feedback.

Enter Millennials. They’re the first generation in the workforce that grew up with the Internet. It has shaped who they are and what they expect, and they’re bringing those new expectations into the working world.

Don’t be afraid to examine your current review structure and ask questions. Your review policy should be a living, breathing, evolving thing. Has it been touched in the last ten years? Five years? Past year? Do your managers give both formal and informal feedback? Is there flexibility in feedback frequency, or is the rate static? Do you customize your approach based on the generation and/or the individual’s preference? Are you staying abreast of what your competitors, as well as the best-of-the-best, are doing? If you answer “no” to any of these questions, read on.

If you make a 180-degree shift in the way things used to be done, you’re going to face an unhappy flood of Xer and Boomer employees. Make sure you’re giving people a few options. Maybe your Xers don’t want a weekly check-in and once a month serves them just fine. Don’t ever assume; take the time to ask. And always keep in mind that change is hard, and in the workplace, if you’re trying to retain all generations, evolution trumps revolution.

Know what works for Millennials

When strategizing about how to deliver feedback to Millennials, don’t spend sleepless nights daunted by how much you need to change. Yes, Millennials are wired a bit differently, but at the end of the day, they’re just people. To make things easier for you and more valuable for them, it’s helpful to get a handle on understanding what works for them. Chances are you’ve got a pretty good grasp of how to communicate with Baby Boomer and Gen X employees, but start thinking (or asking!) about what works for Millennials before you sit down for a review.

Ask them to self-evaluate before they pontificate

One of the first steps to make a review session work for Millennials is to give them time to think and evaluate first. This practice is not uncommon to Millennials — they’ve likely been doing it from elementary school all the way through their MBA programs — but that doesn’t mean they do it without prompting. Sitting down and listing all the things you’ve done right and wrong isn’t necessarily a fun task for any generation, but it certainly is worthwhile. Prior to an informal or formal review session, ask Millennials to reflect on their performance.

Ask yourself whether you know what to say

While it may seem obvious, do your best to think before you speak. Consider phrases/words/thoughts commonly used in the workplace that should be avoided and replace them with something more savory.

Don’t Say Do Say
Three month ago … Last week or a couple of hours ago …
Why do you need so much feedback? How much feedback do you prefer?
What could you have done differently? What did you do well and what would you change?
Back in my day … What has worked for me may or may not work for you …
Let’s talk about your weaknesses … Let’s focus on your strengths …

Ask them

Yup. That is it. Just plain ask them how they like their feedback. In all likelihood they have lots of thoughts on the topic. But you can’t forget that, though they belong to the Millennial generation, each employee is an individual. Take the time to have a conversation with them about how they prefer to receive feedback. Come to the meeting prepared with a proposed review session and format. Ask them for their thoughts, amend as necessary, and go from there. If you’re feeling adventurous, ask them whether they need anything different from you as a mentor.

How to differentiate between formal and informal feedback

Feedback sessions lie on a moving scale of formality, where all levels are equally important, but knowing when and how to go about each one … well, that requires a dash of experience with a pinch of emotional intelligence. That said, Millennials show a marked preference for the informal end of that scale. They’re an inherently informal generation because they grew up in an environment that allowed for constant and candid communication. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all allow Millennials to give feedback on people’s lives with a thumbs up/heart icon/emoji or comment. An acquaintance might post a recent picture of a vacation in Spain, and the response might be “Whoa, Jordan, those bullfighters are impressive. Looks fun!” Even if they’ve spoken to Jordan only a handful of times, they’re comfortable commenting (in a way, giving him feedback). They’re so accustomed to constantly giving and delivering feedback via these informal platforms that, to a Millennial, informal is the new normal, to the point that very formal feedback can stir up anxiety and feel a bit uncomfortable.

In stark contrast, other generations grew up in an environment when the norm was being left alone to fend for yourself unless something was going terribly wrong. In the workplace, older employees wait for the formal review process and use it as a scale to track progress over time. In this format, you condense a half year or year’s worth of comments into a couple-hour time block. The window for feedback is typically opened for that brief period of time before being shut again for all but the most immediate and/or pressing needs. Politically correct language and documentation are standard, as well as professional attire and thorough preparation for every single review session.

There’s clearly quite a difference between the formal standard that Xers and Boomers are accustomed to and the more informal check-in that Millennials hunger for. In all likelihood, all your employees — whether they’re 25 or 68 — prefer a healthy mix of the two (with Millennials tipping the balance in favor of the informal). To make sure that you deliver, you must first understand what differentiates the formal from the informal.

Formal feedback looks like this:

  • The review is often scheduled months in advance.
  • Pre-work is a prerequisite.
  • The review room is organized in a specific way (for example, the manager deliberately sits across from the employee).
  • The review always takes place in person.
  • It lasts for a set period of time, typically one to two hours.
  • Criticism is carefully couched, using phrases like, “This is an area of opportunity.”
  • Professionalism and polish in communication and dress are expected.
  • The review is meticulously documented.
  • Communication is (mostly) one-directional.
  • Extended periods of time lapse between sessions.

Informal feedback, on the other hand, looks more like this:

  • Feedback is delivered instantly or within a couple hours or days.
  • Little or no pre-work is required.
  • A public place or open office is often preferable to a closed-door office.
  • Virtual communication is an acceptable alternative to meeting in person.
  • Time frames are short and flexible, typically 5–15 minutes.
  • The style of communication is casual and open — direct, but not abrasive.
  • There are no expectations regarding decorum or dress.
  • Documentation is scant, aside from determining next steps.
  • Communication is two-directional.
  • Flexibility is key in finding time that works, which may often be determined on the fly.

Each individual may prefer feedback that is particular to his career and lifestyle, so what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. It will take a bit more work upfront, but make sure to curate your approach based on the needs of the individual.

Determine the right frequency for performance reviews

It’s no secret that Millennials want constant feedback. Of course, they do — they’ve grown up in an instant world and know that the sooner they learn something needs fixing, the sooner they’ll be able to fix it. The work environment, however, isn’t necessarily designed to accommodate that model, at least not at the present. HR policies, overscheduling, and lack of resources can all get in the way of instant communication and evaluation. As a manager, you work with the tools at your disposal. Keep the lines of communication open with both your higher-ups and your direct reports. To ensure that you’re determining the right frequency — one that works for you, your employee, and your organization — follow these three steps:

  1. Ask. Get a gauge of how often the Millennials you’re managing want your thoughts. You will find that it varies from person to person, and you’ll save valuable time that might be lost in making assumptions.
  2. Research. Seek insight from fellow leaders about what works for them. How often do they meet with their teams, and how rigid or flexible is that schedule? You can even take it a step further and track what trends and best-in-class examples are being referenced in the news and apply those concepts to your own practice.
  3. Act. After asking and researching, set a plan into action. Pilot a feedback timeline for a month and then review until you find what works.

The following are signs that the frequency may be too high:

  • When you meet with your direct report, you have trouble coming up with a review topic, whether the feedback is good or bad.
  • You spend all the review session talking about your personal lives.
  • Your own work is suffering.
  • The Millennial keeps cancelling your sessions.
  • There’s not enough time between your conversations to see positive changes in performance.
  • You’re bored.
  • They’re bored.

At most, stick with a default frequency of once a week. Younger generations will favor informal feedback in the moment, but in many cases that just may not be practical. Instead, as a base, schedule one-on-ones regularly for 15–30 minutes. Set a time and a location, and make it a habit. That way you and your reports will grow accustomed to these check-ins. It’s up to both of you to assess and readjust the necessary frequency from there.

Master the compliment sandwich (hold the cheese)

Some time ago, in a land of corporate masterminds, a brilliant and deceptively simple idea emerged from its cocoon: The compliment sandwich. Here’s how it works:

  • The slice of bread: A specific, positive assessment on a recent accomplishment.
  • The cheese: A nice, vague compliment; for example, “People seem to like you”.
  • The meat or black bean patty: All the things that really need work because, whoa, have you missed the mark.
  • The lettuce: One more quick criticism that is minor but matters for future reference.
  • The slice of bread: But, really, overall you’re doing pretty well here.

Sure, there are flaws to this method, but the intent here is spot-on. Most people will freeze up if your review opens with everything that they’ve done wrong. A compliment to kick things off creates a pleasant, nonconfrontational environment for the meeting, and closing with positive feedback lets the employee leave feeling motivated (rather than wondering if he’ll ever be able to do anything right). Millennials want nice thick slices of bread on their sandwich — more so than other generations — because they’ve been fed positivity and encouragement their entire lives. This is in direct juxtaposition to Gen Xers, who are known for a “hold the bread, extra meat” mentality. They favor an honest, direct, transparent, and anti-fluff feedback model where “area of opportunity” is a cringe-worthy phrase that is better substituted with what you actually mean “weakness.” That’s them, though, and that mindset doesn’t always work well for Millennials.

Though Millennials want that compliment sandwich, you must tread carefully because they are allergic to inauthenticity. The worst thing that can happen is that the sandwich turns into an overcooked, inedible mess that’s full of falsities. Too often, people take the compliment sandwich approach without understanding that it’s really easy to read through the vague compliment cheese. If this is paired with a specific criticism of work, the next generation will naturally assume that all you’re doing is trying to get to the bad stuff. So make sure your compliments are valid, or hold the cheese. You could also consider throwing out the sandwich all together and adopting one of these alternate approaches:

  • Stop, continue, grow. Meet with a Millennial on a regular basis and discuss two or three processes/behaviors to stop doing, two or three to continue, and two or three that can be improved upon. This allows for all ingredients of the sandwich but lays it out in a more transparent way — an open-faced sandwich, if you will.
  • Cheers, perseveres, and keep clears. Cheer the Millennial for a job well done, outline the areas she needs to keep pushing through (or persevere), and lay out the things or behaviors she should steer clear of going forward.
  • The good, the bad, and the ugly. Highlight the wins; point out the areas that have been, simply put, rather bad; and then pinpoint the areas that start as ugly ducklings but can turn into swans with just a bit of growth and change.

A little humor goes a long way with Millennials. If you’ve got some tough feedback to give, of course, give it the gravity that it requires, but if you come in with a doom-and-gloom attitude, you’ll scare the wits out of them. Crack a joke or two, or share a story about how something went wrong in the past that’s now a bit humorous in hindsight.

Avoid the “participation trophy” mindset

Millennials have earned the dubious honor of being labeled the “trophy generation.” Maybe you’ve thought to yourself, said out loud, or overheard someone else say, “I just can’t deal with this ‘everyone gets a trophy’ thing! Why do the Millennials I manage expect praise for just doing their job?!” As is usually the case, there is more to this whole participation trophy thing than meets the eye.

How Millennials feel about the rewards for trying

To let you in on a not-so-secret secret, Millennials didn’t ask for any of the trophies or certificates that they received. Most Millennials were raised by Boomer parents who gave them out because the self-esteem movement was in full storm. The feel-good rewards for effort prevalent in the 1980s through 2000s were a reaction to the earlier feel-not-so-good era of command-and-control parenting styles.

Today, Millennials are none too happy to be referred to as the trophy generation because even though they probably did get a certificate for “best character” at the senior-year award ceremony and/or a basketball ribbon that read “participant,” they’re not proud of it. They may even deny that the trophies and ribbons impacted them because they are only too well aware of how ridiculous they were (it’s been an incessant source of scorn, teasing, and mockery since they entered the working world). Though they may deny it, these participation awards did impact Millennials … but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.

Give them accomplishment (not participation) recognition

Millennials don’t expect a trophy after completing every assignment, but they do want recognition of their efforts and praise for a successful finish. They do understand rejection; many of them learned what that felt like when they graduated into a recession economy. They’re wary of underperforming and are looking for the encouragement that was the status quo of their youth. The praise doesn’t have to come in the mindset of, “You tried really hard; here’s a ribbon.” Acknowledge that Millennials need more encouragement, but do it authentically. To them, a “no news is good news” mentality likely won’t fly.

The dark side of the participation award

No one ever thinks about the flipside of this participation trophy thing. When everyone gets a trophy, the winners actually end up losing. By watering down the meaning of the award, it makes the win feel that much less satisfying. Millennials want that win, and they want it to mean something. If you praise them always, even when what they’re doing sucks, you’re doing them and yourself a disservice.

Ditch the “but I had to figure it out on my own” mindset

You may remember a time when, upon receiving tough feedback, you took it and figured out, on your own, how to improve your performance. While that may work in an authoritarian-leaning work environment or for a very independent generation like Gen X, the next-generation worker has different expectations. Millennials grew up with coaches, teachers, and counselors who consistently helped them grow and change for the better, constantly offering techniques and skills to help them confront challenges. If they lost the tennis match, their parents didn’t say, “Well, you lost; now go figure out what you can do to be better.” Instead, they said, “Well, that’s too bad. What do you think you could’ve done differently to win? Here’s what I would suggest. We can work on your backhand over the weekend. Now let’s go get some pizza.”

Like it or not, as a manager, the onus is on you to help set Millennials on a course for improvement. When Millennials look at their careers, they don’t see themselves as solo players but as part of a team, and you’re their coach. Instead of delivering feedback with the expectation that they will figure it out on their own, ditch the “do-it-yourself” mindset and come prepared to help them figure it out.

Here are some ways to help Millennials help themselves:

  • When delivering feedback on areas of improvement, present them with a framework restricted by deadlines and to-do lists.
  • Check in on the framework regularly so that you (and your Millennial employee) can track progress over time.
  • Be clear about what you want changed, how you want it changed, and when you want it changed by.
  • Give them a list of resources other than yourself, including websites, training tools, and other employees.
  • Offer small carrots along the way that they can “unlock” as rewards for improved performance, for example, a $5 gift card to their favorite coffee shop.
  • Avoid sticks (harsh punishment). Millennials will not react favorably, and you’ll end up demotivating them.
  • Whenever you deliver tough news or commentary on performance, follow it up with a proposed plan of improvement.

You may be thinking that this sounds like a lot of hand-holding or is even a counterproductive (and time consuming) way to get the most out of your employees. While those thoughts are not entirely unwarranted, adopting structured, prescriptive styles of feedback delivery that can be measured over time will help you set Millennials on a fast-track to independent and excellent work. The more time you invest upfront, the more streamlined and hands-off you can be with them in the future. For now, a structured plan of improvement is one of the easier processes to adopt to prevent a Millennial asking (or singing), “Should I stay or should I go?”

What the best of the best are doing

Since annual reviews grew in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, there have been standout companies and CEOs that have served as forward-thinking examples for others to model their own reviews on. Now, even those progressive companies are changing their ways. When it comes to feedback and reviews, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. As a leader, you can sift through the best-in-class examples to uncover and adopt either general overhauls or specific changes that make sense within your performance evaluation process.

General feedback considerations

Before overhauling everything about your feedback model, you may want to examine the most basics elements that, when shifted, appeal more to the Millennial demographic. While these shifts may be large (eliminating the annual review that you have 30 years of records for in an HR basement), it may be the most seamless shift you can make.

  • The death of the annual review: Though in many environments a case can still be made for the formal, annual feedback process, some large organizations are finding that it’s too time consuming and just doesn’t deliver the desired results. There are no sacred cows in the workplace of the future. Ask yourself whether your company is properly using the annual review and — more importantly — whether it’s still the best use of time. There may be some micro versions that accomplish the same thing without stirring up such a big to-do.
  • The 360 approach: It’s no longer enough for feedback to go in one direction — it needs to come from all positions in the company. Your manager is not the only person who may have constructive comments, and for Millennials, the more feedback from the more people, the better (within reason of course). Work is affected by everyone, not just one person. Many organizations have approached this more holistic, democratic approach to soliciting and receiving feedback.

Specific feedback considerations

If you’re feeling creative, innovative, and bold about embracing changes to your feedback methods, then adopting versions of these examples may be best for you and your company. The following companies adopted unique feedback models to deliver specific results, and most are reaping the rewards. Maybe you’ll read these and it will spark a unique idea of your own.

  • Kayak.com’s five-word performance review: The process is simple. You meet in an informal environment like a coffee shop or restaurant. Either the manager or employee can request feedback that boils down to five words (two negative, two positive, and one of your choosing). You go over the words together and then decide what to do from there.
  • GE’s switch from “rank and yank” to “PD@GE”: When GE was under CEO Jack Welch’s reign, it was famous for substantially growing in business, serving as an example for Six Sigma, and setting a precedent for the “rank and yank” or “vitality curve” model that placed employees on a bell curve. If you were in the lowest 10 percent, you were fired. Over time, that model has changed drastically into the more-current version, which reviews employees using an app that constantly grades their priorities as either “continue doing” or “consider changing.”
  • Pixar’s “Plussing”: Pixar is becoming feedback famous for adopting a simple method: Any word of feedback requires constructive criticism. If you’re going to deliver a criticism, it has to be followed by a “plus,” an idea or suggestion that will help improve the original idea.

The reality is that the feedback and review process has to work for you and your team. Determine a plan that makes sense for your organization, and don’t be afraid of testing it. When considering a new review method or technique, take these steps:

  1. Do the research.
  2. Poll those you’re leading and managing to see what works for them and what they feel is lacking.
  3. Propose a vision for what could work and get insight from others.
  4. Decide on a course of action and test it over a set period of time.
  5. Reevaluate and course-correct (if necessary).

Many large, big-name organizations are adopting all kinds of fancy apps to make instant feedback less complicated and more painless, but it’s just not that easy. One particular app allows employees (younger ones, let’s be real) to send emojis throughout the day that express how they’re feeling about work. A novel concept, but chances are high that if you present this new app to a room full of next-generation employees, they’re going to sigh, roll their eyes, and put on a smile to please the leaders who are trying just a bit too hard to reach them. Flashy and new doesn’t always mean best-in-class. Consider all angles before implementing drastic change.