Anna Gombin
Knowledge Manager @ Alan
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How we do employee reviews at Alan

In his recent blog article about The new present of work, Alan’s CEO Jean-Charles Samuelian-Werve shares his perspective on how we work at Alan. He mentions our Employee Reviews process. We thought a detailed article could help some of you who are wondering how to set in motion such a process.

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At Alan, we do employee reviews twice a year (usually, in June and December). Until now, it sounds kind of usual, right?

However, our employee review cycle is not hierarchical. It is fully transparent. It is based on peer feedback and not on outcomes. Now, did I catch your attention?

Overall a good review cycle is not just about a smooth process. It is also about good preparation aiming to educate before making employees jump into it.

Time to reflect (but, like, for real)

Our philosophy

We want everybody at Alan to grow and we want to help them go on that road.. It is important for us that people thrive (it seems obvious). The goal is to help each Alaner bloom and develop their career; our aim is also to assess a given Alaner’s impact on the company and assess their performance fairly through peers, their coach and themselves.

We don't expect the same impact for people that are at different levels in our salary grid. That said, we have high expectations for everyone at Alan.

Impact is about:

  • Personal behaviors, being the voice of our Alan Leadership Principles and contributing to the team effort.
  • Demonstrated technical skills and expertise.
  • Scope of ownership and impact through the person's projects & work.
  • The review should be objective and unbiaised.

Why feedback matters

Feedback is an instrumental tool to help everyone grow.

We value feedback a lot at Alan so that we can grow as individuals and as a team. Whoever you are in the team, you are expected to receive and give feedback on a regular basis.

Giving and getting feedback is one of the toughest human interactions and requires vulnerability (meaning: being okay with failing/trying again). But all and all, it is what allows us to be brave, to make bold moves and we should embrace it.

For this culture of feedback to be impactful, we want feedback to be done efficiently and considerately. Our written culture may make our communication quite blunt, which can surprise some and affect people differently : people have different personalities, which is completely fine and which we value!. Because of that, it is even more important to follow a few guidelines.

Radical candor We've been quite influenced by a book called Radical Candor by Kim Scott to build our culture of feedback.

The book’s two angular stones are:

  • to care personally: we are all human beings with human feelings, and even at work, we need to be seen as such;
  • while challenging directly: challenging others and encouraging them to challenge you helps build trusting relationships. It shows you care enough to point out both the things that aren’t going well and those that are and that you are committed to fixing mistakes.

Challenge at Alan is direct. It doesn't mean we don't value each other, quite the contrary!

If you want to read a quicker version of the content of the book, Kim Scott also wrote a handy blog post about it.

Why would only your boss know better?

Choose the most relevant reviewers

Indeed. Is your manager the person who has the most visibility on what you do everyday, and how you do it? Or is it your peers?

At Alan, we don’t have managers. We have peers and coaches.

The primary purpose of the Coach is to help the coachee develop and improve. It means helping the coachee to reach competence and then to reach their full potential. Coaches are there to help people capitalize on their own style, focusing on strengths.

Coaching is not about sharing updates or managing the daily work of the person. That’s why coaches don’t even necessarily have the same skillset and expertise than coachee (I’m Knowledge Manager, and my coach is working in the Legal team).

That’s also why it makes sense to have your peers review your work. Your coach is also an interesting reviewer to have: they likely won’t give you feedback on the core of your work, but mostly on meta aspects of your individual and collective growth. As an example, my coach wrote: “Anna could still further develop her awareness of Alan's strategy as a whole, particularly as we expand to more countries and prepare to scale even further”.

Every Alaner is going through the same process, whatever their role, their seniority, their salary level: even co-founders, CEO and CTO, go through the exact same steps as any other Alaners, and as transparently. By the way, interns too!

How we organize the process

The review process is simple in theory, but it needs some strong ownership to make sure it runs smoothly: embarking 300 employees in a company process requires some organization.

  1. Reviews are run in parallel, which means that the whole company has 2 weeks to write their self and peer-review. Everyone selects their peer reviewers, and off we go with the writing phase.
  2. The process is “blind”: while we are writing reviews, we can’t see what others have written (on ourselves, on the Alaner we’re peer-reviewing or on our coachee). This ensures fairness and reduces biases.
  3. The written reviews are all published publicly on the same day: coaches discover the feedback written on their coachees all at once, only after they’ve written their own feedback. Reviews are all public and shared transparently. For instance, everyone can read our co-founders review, or their team lead’s (obviously, this is embedded in our specific context of a radically transparent culture - a 260° review cycle does not necessarily need to be fully transparent to be successful).
  4. A review debrief is organized for the reviewed Alaner by their coach. A peer-reviewer is invited to the session to bring an extra-perspective. In our written async culture, we value live discussions to allow emotions sharing; it sets the Alaner in high and positive energy for their next cycle. It can be remote or physical.
Goognotgood

Our peer-review questions script

NB. The self-review script is mirrored from the following one.

Question 0. Context

❓ In what context have you worked together since the person's last review?

Question 1. Accomplishments and impact

❓ Since their last review, what important accomplishments and impactful work done by them did you witness?

Help text: Take a step back and express your overall assessment of the person’s impact over this past cycle rather than describing the detailed list of achievements. It is OK not having an exhaustive view, as long as you are specific on your feedback.

👉 Example of structure - Name/area of accomplishment - Key document/etc. - Problem tackled - Impact

Question 2. Missed impact

❓ Is there a project or an objective you noticed on which the person could have had more impact? How?

Help text: Describe with specific examples and data points. Has the person reprioritized, bounced back, got the right resources to move forward, communicated about it, asked for help…?

👉  Example of structure
- Area of minored impact 
- Reason for minor impact
- What could have been done

Question 3. Strengths

❓ What are the key strengths you noticed, and how these strengths were used to have a clear impact? How do they exemplify Alan’s Leadership Principles?

Help text: Explain why by providing quantitative and qualitative examples.

👉  Example of structure
- Key strength name (it can be a value from the Alan Leadership Principles)
- Context where this key strength was shown
- Impact (concrete and tangible examples)

Question 4. Areas of improvements

❓ What are the key areas of improvement you noticed that might have held the person back from having more impact? Which Alan Leadership Principles would you encourage them to exemplify better?

Help text: Explain why by providing quantitative and qualitative examples. How would this Leadership Principle apply to the everyday work of this Alaner? Add ideas for this Alaner to ramp up on this Leadership Principle.

  👉  Example of structure
  - Area of improvement name (choose one from the Alan Leadership 

Principles) - Context where it was damageable for the Alaner - What could have been done to increase impact (concrete and tangible examples)

Question 5. Next focus

❓ 5. Looking ahead: what key projects or objectives should the person focus on during the next cycle?

Help text: Focus on company/team projects, role expectations or OKRs

Question 6. Performance

❓ 6. How do you assess the performance of the person during the last cycle?

  • Does not meet expectations
  • Meets some expectations but not all
  • Meets expectations
  • Exceeds expectations
  • Greatly exceeds expectations

Help text: Performance is a measure of impact against set expectations within a framed timeline. Explain your rating, providing quantitative and qualitative examples of demonstrated and sustained impact during the cycle and referring to the person or their crew,’s OKRs and summary of achievements. Performance is not static, your rating is based on the entire time frame. We suggest mentioning in the comments if the performance trend has changed during the cycle.

Question 7. Level

❓ Considering this and past cycles, do you think we should review the person's level?

  • I believe the impact of the person is slightly below their current level
  • I believe the impact of the person is at their current level
  • I believe the impact of the person is slightly above their current level
  • I believe the impact of the person is strongly above their current level

Help text: Your answer will help decide on a Level-up review for the person. Explain why using their community's level (salary) grid. Level is an assessment of the person's sustainable growth and impact overtime, and in multiple dimensions. Your answer will help decide on a Level-up review for the person. Remember that levels are defined by one's steady impact at a long term horizon.

Stop the gossip and make it transparent

At Alan, we are radically transparent. Radical transparency is unintuitive to outsiders and new team members. There are multiple reasons for it: work is traditionally organized in silos, people are afraid to get lost in the mass of information if they have access to everyone's projects, they are used to work this way and are afraid to change their long time habits, or are afraid to speak (or write) publicly.

We have decided to enforce new work habits that we believe are more efficient and fair. As we are all owners and decision-maker, we need to have full context to use our best judgment. We communicate widely. We are not flooded by information, because we don't keep it as raw information, but instead we organize it.

In this radical transparency context, our reviews are transparent all the way: the whole feedback written by peers, by the coaches, and the Alaner themselves is transparently shared. The whole list of employees selected to be discussed in a promotion committee is transparent. The whole list of Alaners promoted, and the discussion around why they were promoted, or why they were not promoted is transparent, i.e. shared in public documents.

This level of access is useful on several levels:

  • It creates fairness: when everything is done and discussed out in the open, it forces everyone to be fair and objective. You can’t just ask your friends to write eulogistic reviews to get promoted. You can’t trick the system when your feedback can be read by everyone: you have to set out strong arguments, illustrate them by concrete examples; and be as objective as possible.
  • It cuts gossips: no need to gossip on who got a raise and why, if everything is transparent, objectively discussed and explained. The rationale behind every promotion decision is documented and shared across the company.
  • It increases quality: what’s the best way to learn how to write a comprehensive piece of feedback other than by reading examples? We empower Alaners to to write high qualitative reviews by giving them a toolkit, within which they can find examples of good reviews.

Reviews and salary raise

We’ve left the process description at step 4. But there is a step 5: promotion committees.

This phase of the review process is still triggering some questions at Alan: should we separate written reviews, i.e. feedback, from salary raise? In theory, yes. We have very specific ways of doing salaries at Alan; and reviews are made to receive feedback and to take it as a gift to help you grow.

In practice, it’s a bit different: we take advantage of the momentum and time spent on reviews at company-level to conduct our promotions committees or what we call “level reviews”.

Our Level Review process relies on an objective definition of the responsibilities and skills required at each salary level. We look at one's scope of influence and expertise/impact. Salary level reviews are granted when an employee performs at the next target level, not when they are likely to perform at the level soon.

In a second phase of the global review process, we compute all the quantitative results of questions 6 and 7 (“How do you assess the performance of the person during the last cycle?” and “Considering this and past cycles, do you think we should review the person's level?”).

We take ~25% of the company’s best gradings and here you go, you have a cohort of employees whose case is ready to be discussed by a promotion committee constituted by senior Alaners (the truth is that the calculation is a bit more complex than selecting the 25% of best graded Alaners, but you get the idea – in reality, we take into account gender balance, team spread, etc.).

Moving up a salary level is a big step at Alan. It can take years to grow to the next level and that is normal. During the bi-yearly reviews, we want Alaners to focus on how to grow personally and within the company. The question is: how would you separate the growth objective from the salary reward? If not during reviews, when to reward Alaners whose impact has been higher than what they’re actually expected to have and compensated for?

Things we’re still working on

  • Scaling with efficiency: at this stage of our team's growth, the review process has become a huge machinery: it involves 5 organizers, it is spread over 2-3 months, 1300 reviews are written, we estimate its cost to Alan to be over 100k€, just for the writing part. Our next challenge is to radically simplify the whole process to make it scale. We are all ears if you went through the same step in your company!

  • Recognition vs. Reward: how to make sure our employees get the recognition they deserve for the amazing work they ship, outside of the promotion process? What are your best ideas to ensure we remain fair to those who deserve company recognition?
Anna Gombin
Knowledge Manager @ Alan

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