How does a company ensure that its talent management system is focused on what matters — and that "brilliant jerks" don't slip through the cracks?
Atlassian, an enterprise software company, sought to answer that question with a system inspired by the tech iteration process. Ratings weren't working. Instead, Atlassian's global head of talent, Bek Chee, worked with her team to create a system that reinforced what the company wanted to see: a team-focused, inclusive environment that wouldn't reward people who were good at their jobs but bad at teamwork.
In the conversation below, Chee spoke to HR Dive about what that transformation was like and how it continues to evolve. The following conversation was edited for clarity and length.
HR Dive: What prompted Atlassian to make a change?
Chee: We’ve been on this journey for the last 18 to 24 months. Like a lot of companies, we were seeing trends in performance reviews — that they’re just not as effective as they can be. Companies are very different than they were 40 years ago when these things came out. We’ve changed how people get work done, dramatically different from the old hierarchical systems. Forced distribution — pushing people into a specific rating — leaves many disengaged and disempowered.
We looked at the trends and decided to rethink the process. We decided to develop a new system in house. Launched last performance cycle, about a year ago, we started by choosing not to connect reviews with compensation until we got feedback. Now we’re editing again with minor changes and tying the new process to bonuses.
HR Dive: What does your new system entail?
Chee: I think the most powerful and salient decision was to have the review equally weigh three factors. We talked about the "brilliant jerk." Every company has someone who may be great at getting results in a specific area, but they’re not great for the team or the culture. We wanted to reinforce that how you do your work is as important as what you do. In our new system, two-thirds of the rating has nothing to do with technical or job skills.
The three factors we look at are: how you demonstrate company values; how you deliver on expectations of your role; and the contribution you make to the team. In each of those areas, we worked with employees to determine a rating. We told staff what the design of the system would be and what was the intention and asked them to give us what they thought would feel good if they were rated. The staff came up with the lowest rating being an "off year," the next a "great year" and finally an "exceptional year."
One of the ingredients to high-performance teams is how workers care about others. The birthday cake person in every company creates a sense of belonging. We want to make sure we recognize and reward helping teammates, creating a culture of inclusivity as well as direct contributions through their work.
HR Dive: What else did you build into the process?
Chee: A huge component for us was de-biasing the assessment process. There’s been a lot of talk and testing on de-biasing and we worked closely with our design team to remove bias from the process.
What we realized were that systems weren’t designed to be anti-racist, for example, which isn’t the same as non-racist. We wanted to be actively conscious, for example, of being anti-racist.
The system now breaks ratings down to components. What we’ve created requires a manager to go through a series of questions and then the system gives them a rating, rather than it being subjectively created by the manager. The system does the math for you. Although the manager has the ability to override the system and change the rating, we found less than 1% have asked to change the rating so far.
HR Dive: What has been the response from team members?
Chee: Our employees are very open — negative feedback would come overnight! They’re very socially conscious and they’re excited about being rewarded for delivery as well as for performance.
We’ve measured a question we posed to employees for the last 2 or 3 years: to what extent did the performance management conversation help you grow? We’ve seen significant improvement with the new system.
Performance evaluations, and how your manager rates you — it’s very personal. If you care about your career you want to feel comfortable reflecting on your experience with reviews, where it went well and where it didn’t. I’ve heard so many stories of how it doesn’t feel right; these are so powerful. It should feel personal and should feel designed for you. That’s our hope. It’s a process but that’s the goal we want to achieve.
HR Dive: What advice would you give?
Chee: When you are recruiting versus Google and Facebook, the competition is fierce. As a woman with a background in tech, we’ve had the same conversations about diversity for the past 10 years. When you come into tech you recognize that the numbers — even in the best, most inclusive of cultures — don’t reflect the society you live in of a 50/50 split by gender. In tech, it’s more prevalent and in your face.
It starts with the way you invite people to join your team, but if you don’t back it up with systems that support your goals, they figure it out pretty quickly. I would encourage all women leaders in and out of tech to continue to be bold in the space: look at all your processes — performance ratings and others — that can be de-biased and upgraded.