The Employee Development Honor Roll: Adobe - HighGround

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The Employee Development Honor Roll: Adobe

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(In this blog series, we share the stories of companies that have taken the first steps toward their employee development transformation. You can read the first post in this series, on Patagonia, here.)


An employee review process that inspires people to do their best work

Adobe’s performance review process looked very similar to other organizations: Once a year, managers would assign an overall rating to each employee (high performer, strong performer, solid performer or low performer). All employees were then stack-ranked, with thresholds assigned for how many could fall into each bucket. High performers were rewarded while low performers were let go.

In some cases, managers had a great eye for talent and assembled a team of “high performers.” Unfortunately for those employees, the stack ranking system forces those managers to make decisions that don’t necessarily reflect how each individual performed.

It was as confusing as it sounds and even more time consuming, taking an estimated 80,000 hours each year. Managers were wasting time, employees were frustrated and voluntary attribution became a problem in the months following each year’s reviews.

Adobe solved for this in two ways. First, the company dropped both the ratings and the stack rankings. These traditional strategies are 50+ years old and didn’t fit the way a modern workforce operates. Second, the annual review was replaced with a more frequent process for giving and receiving feedback, which the company calls “check-ins.” The company shared its new approach in a blog interview with Donna Morris, its senior vice president of global people resources.

“Adobe’s new check-in culture revolves around clear expectations, frequent feedback — both positive and constructive — and no ratings or rankings. No more late nights for managers scrambling to write detailed reviews for the record, and no more competitive motives underlying teammate interactions. Different parts of the business can even determine when they should hold check-in conversations. For example, if engineering is on a schedule of eight-week development sprints, managers might decide to hold check-ins every eight weeks.”

While the check-ins aren’t on a formal schedule, they do all cover the same three components: expectations, feedback, and growth and development. Applying a structure around these check-ins allows Adobe to ensure managers are arming employees will all the information they need to be successful. Taken singularly, these components could mislead employees about their performance. Here’s why.

  1. Expectations

Adobe managers perform these employee check ins in the context of role expectations. Ensuring that these are known and understood helps employees prioritize their responsibilities and understand where they can make a difference on their teams. *This step creates a starting point for feedback and growth conversations. Discussing expectations alone will help employees understand their job responsibilities, but it would help them course-correct or grow into a more strategic role.*

  1. Feedback

Feedback is critical for so many reasons, but perhaps most of all, feedback of any kind shows employees that their work matters. According to one article, 69% of employees say they would work harder if they felt their efforts were being better recognized. A feedback culture allows managers to ensure high performers that they are valued while helping lower performers learn how to improve. That said, feedback provided outside the context of the expectations can be seen as subjective. *To keep these check ins productive and positive, managers must be able to tie all feedback to job expectations. And while feedback is important to today, it won’t help them get to where they want to be in the future.*

  1. Growth and development

Once expectations are set and feedback is provided, managers have the opportunity to help employees not just right their wrongs, but perform beyond the job description. Exceptional performance isn’t about checking off the boxes, it’s about finding new ways to drive additional value to your work. For employees who see a future with an employer, these coaching sessions are critical to helping establish and course-correct up the career path to their dream roles. *These conversations simply aren’t possible without first establishing current expectations and then perfecting work via regular feedback.*

Adobe has seen tremendous results from changing its employee development strategy including:

  • Less employees are leaving the company – resignations have dropped 30% and involuntary departures have decreased by 50%.
  • From an efficiency standpoint, Adobe has returned most of those 80,000 hours to managers, previously spent on preparing ratings and rankings.
  • Employees are happy. The number of Adobe employees who would recommend the company as an employer has increased 10%.

“The check-ins are a 180[-degree turn] in terms of giving people the material they need to improve their performance and change course,” Morris said. “It completely changes how employees feel about their jobs and opportunities. Feedback is now viewed as a gift.”

You can read more about Adobe here:

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