Performance Reviews vs Focal Reviews: The How, Why & When

Is one type of review better than the other? We take a look at how performance reviews and focal reviews are conducted, the pros and cons and considerations to make when implementing them into your organisation

There are many performance management tools available to companies, but one that remains in place is the employee performance review.  Most organisations beginning to implement employee performance reviews start off with the basic annual review which often falls in line with, or has some connection to, the employee’s commencement date.

However, performance reviews are often criticised by management for causing an interruption to the workflow of their departments and over time this ends up creating a challenge to coordinate, especially for larger organisations, which all too often leads to people slipping through the net and performance management problems don’t get highlighted until later on.

How are Performance Reviews carried out against Focal Reviews?

Standard performance reviews are often conducted annually and in-line with an employee’s start date, for example, 3 months, 6 months and 1 year.  This means that the review process is sporadic across the entire year due to the fact that people get recruited at all different times and there is usually, from personal experience, a lot of chasing up between HR and management to stay on track.  Managers using this performance review type may have a bit more leeway to delay reviews as there is no immediate pressure from HR to get it done unless it has been flagged as overdue.

This can cause tension between HR and management and a resistance to get performance reviews develops over time which causes dissatisfaction with part of their role as a manager and defeats the whole purpose of the exercise.

A review method which is gaining popularity is the focal review, sometimes referred to as common date or scheduled reviews.  Instead of conducting reviews based on the anniversary of an employee’s commencement date, the focal review looks at performing an entire departments reviews at the same time.

Although this may sound daunting to management of larger teams, it does create motivation to get completed on time as everyone is aware of the date they are to be submitted and HR tech options are able to support the more timely aspects of the process.

Disadvantages of the focal review are that newer employees will still have their performance formally evaluated without a full year of service behind them and other tasks may need to be neglected for a time whilst the reviews are being completed.

Why are focal reviews becoming more popular vs performance reviews?

To try and avoid downtime in a department, organisations consider the focal review to reduce disruption throughout the year.  Although the focal process requires some tight scheduling, it leaves the remainder of the year to just continue with regular performance check-ins and employees can actually focus on the individual, departmental and company wide goals and objectives.

Shift Scheduling Software | CakeHR
Shift Scheduling Software | CakeHR

HR can also spend more time on using the data collated from the reviews to develop and implement performance boosting strategies rather than chasing up paperwork, and because tech can play a big part in the smooth running of any review process, the scheduling and communication of mass reviews within a short window of time is made a lot easier with an effective HR system.

With reviews being carried out on the same date using the focal method, organisations are benefiting from the following:

  • More regulated check-ins at an organisational level to monitor company objectives alongside annual goals
  • Better organised preparation if everyone involved is aware of the review date
  • Better data insights for strategic planning purposes
  • All employees performance is evaluated against the same measures of success that the company is focused on at that time
  • Provides a better overview of an organisation at a certain point in time
  • Easier to operate and manage as the process is carried out within a small window of time rather than spanning across the entire year
  • Greater cost control, especially if reviews fall in-line with annual salary increases
  • On-time administration creating less work from HR to chase up outstanding reviews
  • Can easily be aligned with business goals and objectives
  • Less chance of employee reviews getting pushed to one side or forgotten about
  • Easier to assess data and analytics of performance across all departments and can see performance of organisation as a whole

When is the best time to transition to a focal review in your organisation?

The process to transition from a performance review to a focal review isn’t always an easy one and can require months of preparation with heavy reliance on HR tech, depending on the size of the company and whether salaries and bonuses need to be prorated with the change of review date.

Companies using an annual, focal salary review model tend to get through it quickly and painlessly, and so it is most often worth the shift

Successful implementation requires a strong business case which lays out and considers the impact the review change may have on the business and its departments.  The process and timeline should be carefully thought out to fall in line with other significant dates in the company calendar (such as organisational goal deadlines, budget reviews, tasks that cannot be put to one side, etc.) and communication needs to be open between HR, Payroll and Finance as part of the key decision making process to ensure that labour resources and costs are accurately calculated against budget.

The focal review doesn’t have to be the only review type held annually either.  Semi-formal, continuous, transparent feedback should be made part of your companies performance review strategy to ensure targets are on course, skill-set shortages and issues are identified and addressed immediately and expectations are being met.

Create Understanding First

A big problem with any type of performance review is not the system, but the understanding behind them.  Performance reviews are not always considered as a beneficial performance management tool which is why there is a lot of resistance to get them done and HR will hear a million and one excuses as to why they are an inconvenience to the day to day running of a department – and that’s what needs to change.

An effective appraisal may not only eliminate behavior and work-quality problems, it can motivate an employee to contribute more

So first things first, HR must develop and communicate the reasoning behind the performance review process to both management and employees so that it is clear that they are not just an opportunity to get a telling off or part of a tick-box exercise.  Training managers in best practice to deliver a successful performance review will motivate and enthuse staff to work on issues with support and be praised for great performance and behaviour.  Until this step has been completed, no review process, whether it be an annual performance review or focal review, will make a positive difference to your business.

Both the performance review and focal review appraisal systems have clear pros and cons and although there appear to be more benefits to both the employee and organisation when implementing the focal review, it really is dependant on the scale and operations of the business and the resources available by means of staffing, budget and HR systems.

Ultimately, companies need to choose the review type that best supports the needs and productivity of the business.

Does your company use the focal review method?  And if so, we would love to hear your opinions on it!


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HR management software app system CakeHR human resources
HR management software app system CakeHR human resources

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Written By

Robyn South

Robyn is a HR professional with over 7 years experience in generalist and complex employee relations matters. A newly established Virtual HR Assistant offering a range of HR services online, who loves to travel and part of the content management team at CakeHR.