This year has been tough enough on working parents.
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As anyone with school-aged children knows, the Omicron wave has left many parents scrambling, with schools and daycares closing and government support largely dried up. And now, with performance reviews around the corner, many working caregivers are looking towards those conversations with dread.

They shouldn’t have to feel that way.

Caregivers deserve performance reviews that recognize their accomplishments during another difficult year, provide a lifeline for support, and help them move their career forward—instead of punishing them for the realities of caregiving.

Define success to recognize caregivers’ many contributions.

Performance reviews reveal what an organization’s priorities are. Investments in equity—like unconscious bias training; equity analyses, which give breakdowns of ratings across cohorts by demographics; and calibration sessions where managers discuss ratings to ensure they’re consistent across teams—benefit caregivers and non-caregivers alike. But the key to supporting caregivers is defining success in a way that celebrates their contributions.

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For example, many caregivers are involved in inclusion and retention-driving work outside of their job description, like leading employee resource groups (ERGs) and educating peers on policies like paid family leave. Thumbtack, a San Francisco-based home services company, evaluates these kinds of contributions in the performance review process under citizenship, one of four core values. According to Jelena Djordjevic, vice president of people at Thumbtack, it sets an expectation “to partake in building a really rich culture and a really rich sense of community.”

Beware the ideal worker norm, which expects employees to dedicate the whole of their time and effort towards their career at the expense of caring for themselves, their families, and their communities. “If that is secretly how you understand work,” says Dr. Kenneth Matos, global director of people science at Culture Amp, an employee engagement platform, “every performance process is ultimately going to end up being sabotaging for caregivers because they don’t have infinite time and infinite commitment. No one really does.”

Make feedback—and employee appreciation—more frequent.

Like many parents, Rebecca Gross, head of partner management at Outbrain, a web recommendation platform based in New York City, found herself stretched thin as the pandemic brought a whole new set of commitments. In the past month, the constant threat of school closures and unpredictability in childcare arrangements has returned, and “it just feels like we’re back in 2020 again.”

Luckily, Outbrain’s performance reviews won’t look the same as in 2020.

During the first pandemic review cycle, Gross saw caregivers and non-caregivers alike leaving their 2020 performance reviews feeling exhausted, frustrated, and underappreciated. This year, her firm has adjusted the process to give performance reviews on a quarterly cycle. This higher frequency helps managers avoid recency bias, the tendency to weigh more recent events more heavily, while giving employees more chances to receive actionable feedback.

Outbrain also created more regular opportunities to reward employee contributions throughout the year, instead of being tied to an annual cycle. For Gross, the addition of spot bonuses and additional incentives has created a more responsive culture of feedback that makes employees feel more appreciated.

When she received an incentive bonus at the end of 2021, her manager “made a point of saying, ‘We want to thank you for how hard you worked, and we know how challenging the year was for you from a personal standpoint.’” She was able to in turn offer the same bonus to a working parent on her team. As a manager, “It’s nice to be able to appreciate people in a way that’s meaningful to their lives.”

Use success metrics to give caregivers constructive feedback between performance reviews.

Like everyone else, of course, caregivers need constructive feedback on their performance and some accountability for the work they deliver. But Robert C. Pozen, co-author of Remote, Inc., argues that performance reviews aren’t great for achieving those things. Instead, he recommends basing feedback on project-based success metrics—which often boils down to “What are you going to deliver? And within what timeframe?”

By moving toward this shared set of goals, managers and employees can agree on expectations before performance reviews. As a result, employees gain a clearer understanding of their progress throughout the year and greater opportunities to receive timely, actionable feedback.

In a 2021 interview with Charter, Pozen explained that clear success metrics also have added benefits for caregivers because caregivers “then have the freedom to work when and where they find it’s best. As long as they’re producing the results, that’s great. They also have the flexibility to meet their own personal needs and family needs, so they’re happier.”

Use performance reviews to support goals and ambitions.

For Kimberly McCabe, director of sales at Long Beach-based digital marketing firm Oshyn, the birth of her son in 2016 didn’t curb her professional ambition. Days after experiencing sepsis and undergoing an emergency C-section, she started a new position as a contractor with Google in the UK. What is striking to her, even five years later, is the degree to which her manager used her performance review to support her career advancement.

“There was no nitpicking about scoring this or that,” she remembers, “just questions about what I wanted to achieve and how they could help me move in that direction.” As she’s moved through her career, her experience at Google taught her to seek out organizations with the same investment in her development and culture of feedback.

Ask—don’t assume.

Bringing performance reviews back to an individual’s goals allows managers and direct reports to have explicit, open conversations about career trajectory. “Oftentimes, managers shy away from these best practices when they’re dealing with an employee that’s having a caregiving crisis or an employee who’s about to have a baby,” explains Allison Whalen, co-founder and CEO of Parentaly, a New York-based organization that provides coaching and content surrounding parental leave, “They think, ‘I need to give them space. I want be supportive, so I’m just not going bother them with these big questions about their future career trajectory while they’re drowning at home.’”

By avoiding these questions, though, managers are left to deal in assumptions. Not only does it prevent them from removing roadblocks for caregivers—like an afternoon meeting that conflicts with school pickup or a need to change travel schedules—it also allows bias to creep in.

Mothers may find themselves traveling down the “mommy-track,” with fewer career opportunities available to them due to a maternal wall bias, which assumes that mothers are less committed and competent in their jobs. Male caregivers may find themselves with the opposite problem. Seeing them first as economic providers, managers may underestimate men’s caregiving responsibilities and fail to give them flexibility and support they need. For all caregivers, these assumptions can cause disengagement and burnout.

Ultimately, organizations will see top talent walk out the door unless they make adequate investments in caregivers. By supporting caregivers with adequate family leave, childcare support, flexible policies—and thoughtful, reflective performance reviews—employers will help them, and the entire organization, thrive.

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