Those who believe that a free market system always corrects itself will be heartened to know that the magic is still happening. The market giants involved:  Microsoft, Adobe, Accenture, Kelly Services and General Motors, with more companies poised to follow suit. Their motivation: mollifying millennial workers, the largest, most influential and whiniest labor segment in the American workforce. The issue: traditional performance evaluations. The prognosis: said evaluations are headed for the history books. Some commentary offered to you by a Baby Boomer no longer effected by such changes: it’s about damn time.

The only redeeming quality the annual review ever had was that it occurred no more than once a year. It’s a seriously flawed process: the schedule is frequent enough to be annoying and the output is infrequent enough to be operationally worthless. The process generates perfunctory results that are of more interest to human resources (a wholly-owned subsidiary of the legal department) than to workers and supervisors. And because HR and legal are the real consumers, reviews are often built with dozens of meaningless evaluation criteria and pages of commentary boxes, all designed to express workplace hopes, wishes, dreams and desires on a ten-point scale.

This byzantine infrastructure seems to have been built to sustain the myth that supervisors spend the year reviewing their notes or quietly pondering the highlights of last 250 working days.  Speaking as an annual reviewer-emeritus, let me assure you that this isn’t how it works.  There are three very popular methods that I’ve witnessed but, of course, I’m sure I never personally used… but who remembers details? The first method I call the “Memory Lane Stroll”: the supervisor reedits the employee’s previous annual review, updating project titles and due dates. The second is the "Miracle of Cut and Paste," wherein all associates are given their own personalized variant on banal, say-nothing platitudes: “<employee name> has <not> displayed the outstanding leadership skills the company has come to expect of its star performers.”

The final and most irritating method is by far the easiest: just ask that employees perform their own reviews. This is typically presented to the team as their  “pre-review exercise” – just a little something to get those old annual review juices flowing. This method actually began as an early form of workplace gamification, wherein you, the employee, are asked to see if you can guess what you did right for the past year, so that your supervisor doesn’t need to spend time trying to remember. You then hand in your review/test. Your supervisor nods knowingly if he or she agrees but downgrades your raise potential when you guess incorrectly. It’s a game only an incompetent manager could love.

There is an unnerving hubris in institutionalizing such meager minimum requirements. Many companies then add insult to injury by requiring employees to perform the task, sparing supervisors all the wasted time the bother. And yet, such companies enshrine the procedure and complement themselves on their open communication and employee-centric management style. For God’s sake, is everyone a politician?           

The reality is that a performance review needs at most a maximum of three thankfully easy questions, and you may stop answering once you provide the first YES response:
  1. Should this employee be promoted?
  2. Should this employee be retained in his/her current position?
  3. Should this employee be put on notice?

Early on, even those who subscribed to a simplified procedure found a way to institutionalize a formulaic approach. Old-school conventional wisdom dictated there should be 20 percent at the top, 10 percent at the bottom and 70 percent in the middle. Just like the “kill me now” annual review long form, these arbitrary guidelines are finding their way into the past tense. The idea that the labor force falls neatly – or has to be forced – into predictable segments is nothing more than a bean counter’s fantasy. Leaders who truly grasp the nature of human assets know that all employees, good and bad alike, need encouragement, understandable direction and candid, rapid and honest feedback to succeed in the workplace. So now, armed with an ultra-short review form, there’s really no reason why spot reviews couldn’t be done soon enough to actually make job performance and productivity improvements. 

Realistically, some things won’t change. Because termination is an action with legal consequences, the need for formal documentation of proper warning and rightful justification will continue. But today the process is the tail wagging the dog. Employees on the brink are the ones that need special meetings, checklists and performance improving planning.  Let the rest of us just get on with our lives; stop punishing the entire group for the shortcomings of the few.

What these changes are making clear is that one single requirement was the catalyst for all this annual drudgery: the accounting task of adjusting wages.  Here maybe old-school conventional wisdom got it right in the first place – the vast majority of your workforce deserves a fair and justifiable increase as they continue in service to the company.  Employee tenure reduces cost and increases stakeholder value; it should be acknowledged and rewarded. 

What if one employee deserves a bigger raise than the others? Promote that person – they’re in the wrong job.  After all, this is capitalism – give them more to do and pay them more for doing it. What if that employee loves his/her current position and wants no more hours, responsibility or work scope? We’ve all met those people and we must remind them that love is a package plan: when you marry the job you also marry its pay scale; go find peace in that.

What if an employee deserves less than the others? Take action – they’re in the wrong job, perhaps even in the wrong company. The rest of the team will appreciate the clear message that you support those who add value to the organization by reeducating, relocating or removing those who do not. Failure to act sends its own clear message to the team: it tells them that avoidance and deferral are acceptable workplace behaviors. Once that message is successfully delivered, you may expect those behaviors to blossom like flowers in spring. Closing your eyes to the inevitable not only undercuts the motivational benefit of your raise policy, but also makes it hard to defend the company against wrongful termination claims when you finally get around to doing what should have been done in the first place. 

So let’s recap the impact of our little millennial workmates. They don’t function well without some form of instant gratification, so companies are converting to more frequent, project-by-project feedback. Millennials are laid back and bore easily; as a result, the emphasis on forms, formulas and formal ratings is disappearing. Finally, I am thrilled to report that the millennial generation’s famed “shortened attention span” is paying off in spades – they are inadvertently revolutionizing the workplace. And it’s about damn time.