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How We Run Performance Reviews At Buffer And Why I Have Mixed Feelings About Them

Aug 10, 2023 7 min readOpen
Photo of Carolyn Kopprasch
Carolyn Kopprasch

Chief of Staff @ Buffer

For many years, as a small startup, we did not do any sort of formal performance reviews. Instead, we did regular one-to-one meetings between managers and teammates, usually on a weekly basis. We also gave feedback to each other openly and regularly. (We even experimented with doing feedback transparently, but we went away from that practice — one of the few times we’ve scaled back a transparency experiment!) And lastly, every teammate had a regular mastermind with another team member, which often helped me course-correct or hear something that I otherwise wasn’t noticing about my performance. This felt totally sufficient for many years, and we cherished the open, free-flowing communication in our small team. It would have felt silly to do something that felt “corporate” and unnecessary, like a formal performance review process.

Over time, however, and especially as we grew, our system of open, frequent communication slowly stopped being enough. Teammates started to ask managers for a more formal review of their strengths and areas of growth.

Additionally, we started to need a system for promotions that was more equitable for teammates, and, ideally, one that would be more predictable for the Finance team. As a group, we began to crave a more systematic approach to those conversations to reduce the risk of bias. We were already using our formula approach to salaries, but there is still a subjective element to it, and that’s the level of experience and seniority of the person. If some teammates advocated for themselves and others didn’t, that could result in some preventable inequities across the team. The way to combat this was to systematically review everyone on the team, at the same time and with the same measurements.

Thus, the twice-annual performance review was born at Buffer. We now do official performance reviews twice a year. During this process (which lasts about a month), each teammate does a self-review, and then every manager reviews every person on their team. The teammate and their manager have a one-to-one over Zoom to discuss it live, and then the review is complete.

The logistics of our performance reviews process

We generally do performance reviews twice a year, in May and November. (The timing is designed to avoid major holidays, heavy vacation seasons, and the beginning and end of quarters.)

Everyone at Buffer completes a self-review and receives a review from their manager except new teammates who are still in their first 90 days of onboarding. The other exceptions are teammates who will be on family leave or sabbatical for the review season; we approach those on a case-by-case basis and either skip the review season that one time, or plan to do the process early or late, depending on the teammate’s needs and the manager’s advice.

We have teammates complete a self-review first (we’ll share the questions below) before their managers complete a review with the same question prompts. We ask managers to write their teammate review before reading the teammate’s self-review so that they are not influenced by the teammate’s own assessment. Once that’s done, before submitting their written review to the teammate, the manager is welcome to review the teammate’s self-review just to make sure nothing major was missed.

This year, we introduced two meeting-free days during the first two weeks of review season to help carve out the time necessary to reflect and write. This had mixed success due to the timing of a feature launch that was coming up soon. We’ll try this again next time!

How our reviews are formatted

The review boils down to three main areas:

  1. How is the teammate’s performance in relation to the expectations for the role and level? (This is rated on a scale, more on that below.)
  2. Areas of celebration and gratitude
  3. Feedback and areas to work on

Here is the scale we use for the “expectations” question:

  • Missing expectations: performance or role fit is a concern.
  • Sometimes misses expectations: [teammate] is not consistently delivering the performance or having the impact expected for the role or level.
  • Meets expectations: [teammate] is succeeding and thriving in their role!
  • Exceeds Expectations: [teammate] is achieving fantastic, above-average results in multiple areas of work, and contributing above and beyond what is expected for their level.

The questions in our reviews: *Note, this is the version that teammates fill out, but the version for managers is almost the same, and it says “this teammate” instead of “you.”

  • How would you assess your performance, focusing on the past ~6 months? (This covers day-to-day tasks, meeting deadlines and completing work, as well as your demeanor, communication, collaboration, demonstration of values, and overall drive.) [Multiple choice, optional text box]

Missing expectations: performance or role fit is a concern.

Sometimes missing expectations: I am not consistently delivering the performance or having the impact expected for the role or level.

Meeting expectations: I am succeeding and thriving in my role!

Exceeding expectations: I am achieving fantastic, above-average results in multiple areas of work, and contributing above and beyond what is expected for my level.

  • What deliverables, accomplishments, and cultural contributions are you most proud of in the past six months?  [Text box]
  • What do you wish you achieved that you weren't able to? What blockers or challenges did you face? What are the areas or skills in which you’d like to improve or grow in the next 3-6 months?  [Text box]
  • For managers: Based on this review, are you recommending a step change? [Multiple choice yes/no]
  • Optional for teammates: Please use this space to share any comments on your level within the career framework, if applicable. [Text box]
  • Optional for teammates: What, if anything, would help you be more effective? [Text box]
  • Optional: Anything else to share? [Text box]

How long performance reviews take

We give teammates one week to submit their self-reviews (they are given notice for when this week will be and what the questions are in advance). Managers have three weeks to write and submit their reviews.

As part of the process of writing review for their teammates, managers in bigger teams like Engineering and Customer Advocacy do “calibrations” in order to make sure that teammates are being evaluated and promoted consistently across the area. This format is still evolving, but the idea is that managers get together with the area lead to discuss, and generally reach consensus on, that group’s promotions. This is another practice with the goal of equity and consistency in promotions. Ultimately, the head of the department makes the final decision. Managers submit their reviews once this process is complete.

By the fourth week after opening reviews, managers and teammates should have a live call to discuss the reviews. This is the opportunity to ask questions, elaborate, and generally reach alignment.

After that, managers submit promotions to the Finance team, and these go into effect roughly two weeks or one pay period later.

The whole process takes roughly four to five weeks depending on the team and vacations.

Why I still have mixed feelings about performance reviews

I’ll be honest that I still feel a bit squeamish about this process; I’ve never fully let go of my hesitations. I am fully bought in on the benefits of this process, such as:

  1. The manager and their team reach full alignment on performance expectations and results.
  2. We approach promotions more equitably.
  3. Teammates (and managers, too) can enjoy the peace of mind that comes with knowing that everything related to performance has been shared, and documented.

However, there are some drawbacks to this process, too. Performance reviews take a huge amount of time and effort across the team and thus can be a distraction from daily work. Perhaps most unpleasantly, the process feels very hierarchical and reinforces a top-down model of accountability.

Every time review season comes around, you will find me Googling to see if other modern companies have cracked this yet. (Short answer: not that I’ve found.)

In more detail, these are my biggest complaints with the performance review process:

1. It feels valuable and important for teammates to put time and attention into this process, but it always feels a bit painful to take that time away from serving customers. Of course we believe that this process will help us serve customers better in the long term, but that can be hard to hold onto in the moment.

2. The manager’s perspective is only one view into a teammate’s contributions, and it’s sometimes not even the most informed one, depending on the team setup! We’ve tried 360 reviews, in which every teammate is reviewed by their peers, but that is an even bigger burden for the team in terms of time away from other work. As a result, we usually stick with just a review from the manager. (In cases where a teammate works most closely with a lead who is not their direct manager, that lead will contribute to the review. One example of that situation is our Marketing Engineer. His manager is on the Engineering team, but the people closest to his day-to-day work are on Marketing. So we just keep lines of communication open in a few cases like this.)

3. We hire talented, hard-working people who are intrinsically motivated to do great work on a team. The form of “top-down accountability” that comes from reviews often feels at odds with that. We’ve noticed less free-flowing feedback in recent years. It’s likely that teammates are relying on the manager to give feedback instead of feeling an obligation to share advice with each other as openly as in the past. We are working on building back this culture of open feedback.

Despite my hesitations, I certainly appreciate the good things that come from performance reviews, too. I love that we have a team-wide process for managers to celebrate achievements and vocalize what they appreciate about their teammates. I value that we take the time necessary to reduce bias in promotions across the team. These seasons are also opportunities for managers and teammates to get on the same page unequivocally about performance and expectations; this is a format for sometimes uncomfortable but necessary conversations, which is important for us as a small business. Ultimately, these benefits outweigh the costs for us.

However, you’ll probably always see us tinkering with the process to try to address the challenges, while still capturing much of what makes performance reviews so valuable. If you have any suggestions or feedback to make this process more effective or efficient, please comment below, or I’m @carokopp on Twitter!

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