• Lisa Dawson

Performance and Salary Reviews during & after business interruption



In this time of need, people are afraid, In the initial days and weeks everyone has their own legitimate fears (shared or not) and going outside or back to the office is one of them.


Addressing that concern is basic. In the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, ‘safety’ is basic. If we don’t address that concern, the rest like productivity won’t fall through.


If people believe and trust that you’re showing them care and concern, they will support whatever other initiatives you rollout.


How are salary and performance reviews affected?


Once employees can feel safe and productive, whether back in an office or still working remotely, you can address the next layer of needs: job security and other job/career expectations.


Many employers take the time and effort to follow through with employee reviews, while others let this annual tradition slide.


One firm has taken the immediate step to defer performance reviews, sending this message:


“We believe it's unfair to hold employees to the same standards during this outbreak, the economy is suffering, and we are offering limited services as a firm. Consequently, we have completely halted performance reviews for the time being, as we can't find reasonable parameters to measure each employee's performance due to the circumstances. Performance reviews will resume when its services return to normal.”


This has led to law firms looking at the whole Performance and Salary review process. Annual performance reviews fall somewhere between sad and terrifying. Many firms are realizing that reviews look backward, so it doesn't help improve future performance. As firms dissect time management, some are realizing their reviews were not an effective measurement tool because assessments varied so greatly from one lawyer or manager to the next. Most all can say it was disengaging for employees. It felt more like a judgment than a motivational tool.


So what makes the difference? What makes an annual review effective, and how can both employers and employees can prepare to get the best possible outcome?

What's the goal?


Regardless of business interruption, the best employee reviews are a collaboration between a supportive employer and an employee who is interested in improvement.


It’s where the employer delivers honest and timely feedback: performance feedback that is not a surprise situation for the employee. The employee too, provides feedback on workflow, supervision, training, tools and self-assessment. The goal is to work together to create an honest/objective summary of achievements and items requiring attention, resulting in a concrete plan for moving forward and measuring progress towards improvement goals.


This pandemic has also highlighted what behaviours are most important to your firm. Certainly, flexibility is one. Has this been effectively communicated? Are expectations clear to lawyers and staff about what is valued in the firm beyond pure legal skill?


Assuming each firm has analytics to measure performance objectively at some level, understand those metrics may widely differ from expectations due to not being able to work at all.


Be prepared to highlight other valuable skills presented during this time such as: thought leadership; client development and retention; going above and beyond; adapting to new roles; successfully handling extended demands; and exhibiting helpful communication skills during business interruption.




Consider three business reasons why shifting from an annual review to regular performance feedback works:



1.  Knowledge is currency

In law firms, lawyers and staff who have knowledge about their role is key to successful business outcome. In firms with structured training, teaming and resources, inexperienced college grads are turned into skilled advisers. Such firms are doubling down on development, by including their employees (who are deeply motivated by the potential for learning and advancement) in the process of their own growth.


2. Agility is central

As law firms adopt business strategies based on innovation, the elimination of individual ratings and annual reviews must evolve. An end-of-year summary discussion shifts to frequent conversations or “touch points”. Key questions become: What am I doing that I should keep doing? And what am I doing that I should change? Annual goals are replaced with shorter-term “priorities.” All to better equip the firm and employees with the agility to anticipate and respond to changing times.


3. Teamwork for growth

Practice groups shift from the individual to group results. Improved depth of relationship with clients, steam-lined workflow and creating synergy between frontline and back-office employees all adds to support growth and success.

End-of-year assessments exist only to summarize performance discussions that happen throughout the year and to set pay increases accordingly. Employees still have goals, but the goals are short-term.



MANAGEMENT “to dos” before reviews (scheduled or ad hoc):





- Ensure open lines of communication between review meetings


- Have data, specific, current, examples and questions ready for the person you're evaluating especially if you anticipate it will be a difficult conversation.


- Be kind, but direct, and stay open to listening throughout the meeting.


- Give feedback that is timely, specific and actionable.


- Don't comment on rumors, gossip, or things you have heard about the employee; instead, focus on evidence and concrete examples of their strengths and weaknesses.


- Finally, make sure to let them know what they are doing well.


- Refresh yourself on how to accept critical feedback and entertain difficult conversations

EMPLOYEE “to dos” before the review (scheduled or ad hoc):



- Ensure open lines of communication between review meetings


- Keep the focus on yourself not what others are doing


- Have some goals and areas you would like to improve ready to discuss


- Bring your ideas for how to make progress throughout the firm.


- What are you thankful for?


- Refresh yourself on how to accept critical feedback and entertain difficult conversations.



Everyone works to earn an income. How to handle salary reviews?



Salaries, if they are not already pinned to levels of skill and performance, should be. All employees should know what their opportunity to move to the next rung looks like. Even if these levels are not spelled out 1.2.3., there should be clarity around what will get the employee their next bump besides keeping their seat warm for another year.


Some firms build in an annual cost of living allowance as the first tier in their salary build up.


Other firms assign a range of salary, for each level of job task, that is assigned to the employee’s role. This is very clear.


Still others include a salary raise widget for those who have improved their education, professional development and certification.


The point is, salary is not discretionary and not just payroll.


It is clearly communicated, clearly measured, and comprised of rewards/benefits which best resonate with that employee.


Business interruption is a good time to re-evaluate your salary review process.


There is no effective salary widget for just “being there” another year!!


Having said that, most firms have some sort of bonus recognition for valued employees who have been with the firm long periods (5.10, 15 years) period of time. Recognition by bonus, benefits or gift is separate from salary and should be used in conjunction with salary for a total rewards compensation system. For many employees, regular efforts by the employer to show their appreciation speaks louder than a once an assumed annual salary increase.





Just like performance reviews, salary reviews should be looked at periodically. If the firm values their accounting staffer achieving their CPA, then why wait until 8 months after they have attained their certification to reward them? Similarly, if, at a performance discussion, a milestone in receivables has been achieved by the collection’s agent, why wait to reward them? LAAs, too often continue to take on more lawyers, are stretched to work in multiple teams or growing teams. Why not reward and incentivize them by a salary increase for the additional work?


Answer these questions to determine if anyone at any time should be given a salary boost:


What is the position worth?


What is the competitive market value for this position in your region?


What is salary and benefits of your employee in this role?


Where should they be?


The review process is a continuous process where managers and employees work together to plan. Best reviews are a culmination of mini check ins. Don’t get stuck on a particular date or deadline so there is less emphasis placed on the “once a year” event. This way when there is business interruption, everyone will know where they stand.


Looking for advise on performance and salary reviews during business interruption? reach out to Lisa Dawson ljdmanagement@shaw.ca

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