Delayed Reviews Delayed Even Longer

Two-thirds of bosses haven’t done performance reviews in more than a year, postponing millions of promotions. Will they be delayed even longer?

Just as the pandemic disrupted how we work, it upended how we’re graded on our work, too.

Although considered an important part of career development for workers, and a key way leaders can keep workforces motivated, performance reviews have taken a serious hit in the past year. Indeed, according to a survey by the workplace training firm Mursion, only about a third of managers conducted them since the pandemic started. Those that did generally scaled back the formats, sometimes offering little more than a Zoom check-in with direct reports. Now, as millions of workers wonder about promotions, many firms say they may have to delay the normal review process further.

“Managers are trying to figure out if can you measure people the same if they haven’t seen them in a year,” says Dan Kaplan, a senior partner in Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice. “It’s a process.”

Kaplan says it was understandable that performance reviews took a back seat to other priorities, like keeping businesses afloat, during the pandemic. “Employees were dealing with enough misery in world,” he says. “Giving them tough feedback was hard.” At the same time, goals that managers had set for employees in January 2020 were likely meaningless by the spring, so managers were left without key metrics on which to grade employees. Some organizations, meanwhile, turned performance review periods into just asking how employees were doing and asking them what resources they needed.

Postponing performance reviews halted the career momentum for millions. Indeed, LinkedIn said its users reported 40% fewer promotions in 2020 than they did in 2019. An estimated 29 million US workers put their career advancement on hold last year due to the pandemic disrupting their work, according to a recent survey from Bankrate.

Reviews, which are often time consuming and anxiety inducing, may have some unique pandemic twists. One of the major issues pits employees who deserved promotions on the back of their good work in 2019 against employees who believe they should be promoted based on their performance during the pandemic. These groups, which may not completely overlap, are often fighting for the same spots. And in some cases, there may be fewer spots to fight for because companies used the pandemic to eliminate management layers. Employees feel managers may be putting off these conversations. In the Mursion survey, 70% of employees—and 55% of managers—said bosses were avoiding difficult review conversations or having them only reluctantly.

Still, even as finances are more settled and offices gingerly reopen, experts say companies might not emphasize reviews for a while longer. “Performance reviews are important, but they will be seen as part of the organizational process and will continue to slip until we return to normal,” Kaplan predicts.

He says any worker who hasn’t had a performance review since 2019 should ask for one. “It’s very fair for an employee to ask for a review and feedback,” he says, calling them “critical” to workers’ development. For their part, managers will need to acknowledge any gaps in employee performance over the last year and address ways to close those gaps. “Managers will need to be coached on how to have a performance discussion,” says Nathan Blain, Korn Ferry’s global lead for optimizing people costs. “That will avoid fewer surprises.” He also says some managers could provide more informal feedback—through text messages and, when possible, in person between meetings until more formal processes return. “It’s not the same as the one-on-one discussion,” he says.