For many managers, completing the annual performance review process brings a sigh of relief: “So glad that’s over for another year!”

Increasingly, though, leading organizations are phasing out the once-a-year review in favor of ongoing, informal check-ins with employees. The goal: to create a culture of ongoing dialogs focused on building a continuous, dynamic and mutually rewarding approach to development. “Creating a feedback flow is how competitive organizations create happy, productive, fully engaged employees and customers,” writes Georgia Murch, author of “Fixing Feedback” and “Feedback Flow.”

While incorporating regular check-ins into the work schedule may seem daunting to busy managers, it enables employees to act on input in the moment and to take a proactive approach to their development. It also ensures that recommendations are timely and relevant, preventing long gaps between the time that managers identify areas of concern and the time they address them.

This last point is especially important for multicultural employees, who may need training or coaching to help them improve complex skills like communication, which can require a sustained investment of time. Handled thoughtfully, the quarterly check-in provides an informal forum in which employees can share progress and concerns and work with their managers to identify and prioritize practical, near-term actions. It also provides an opportunity to follow up on recent developmental activities, like participation in a group training program, and identify ongoing development opportunities.

Transitioning from an annual to an ongoing process can actually prove more efficient, as well as more effective, as it allows employees, managers, and human resources (HR) and learning and development (L&D) teams to address performance issues before they become entrenched and potentially costly to overcome. Scheduled check-ins also provide a forum for employees to receive not only constructive input but positive reinforcement and motivation as well. And it’s worth reminding managers of the importance of delivering the right message, particularly when the employee’s first language is not the same as the manager’s first language. If employees believe the manager is saying there is something wrong with them that requires “fixing,” a stigma might develop around the recommended follow-up, such as training or coaching.

So, what’s the best way to implement a development check-in program that provides concrete, actionable goals and metrics that work for all stakeholders, including multicultural employees? Below are some tips and a sample plan.

Stay the Course — Don’t Let Dates Slip!

Let’s say it’s the end of the year. You, the manager and the employee are planning development activities for the upcoming year that are tied to objectives for each quarter. At a broad level, those measurable objectives likely include steps such as completing training programs, receiving coaching, or taking on new and challenging tasks that serve as stretch opportunities to flex new skills.

As a critical part of the planning discussion, schedule three check-in meetings for the following year, around the end of the first, second and third quarters. (The end-of-year discussion timing is also part of the performance management calendar.) Putting these dates on the calendar will help keep everyone accountable. You can always reschedule if a critical business need comes up, but you should resist the temptation to keep pushing back these meetings.

Be Specific and Forward-looking

Managers often struggle to craft development plans that are concise and straightforward to execute, with clear, concrete steps for each check-in. Again, if you’re reviewing multicultural employees, be sensitive to the fact that some will still be acclimating to your business culture, so how they view feedback may vary depending on their cultural norms. It’s important to give them specific, actionable recommendations.

Once you’ve gathered all the available input, you’re ready to start planning. But which development actions should you schedule when?

  • To begin, have a specific development opportunity on hand; plan at least one learning event for the employee to complete in the first quarter of the year. With regard to multicultural employees, it’s especially important to give them adequate time to at least start to show progress against some longer-term objectives.
  • For the second quarter, ensure employees focus on a challenging work objective that can benefit from colleague feedback. This task adds important peer context and, in the process, builds helpful relationships for multicultural employees. Complete the feedback-gathering process prior to that quarter’s check-in meeting.
  • For the third quarter, plan an activity that works toward an aspirational career goal rather the current job role.
  • For the fourth quarter, give employees their choice of activities and objectives that are particularly motivating to them. At the end of the year, review progress from the most recent efforts. Then, the cycle begins again.

Here’s an example of how this quarter-by-quarter approach might work: Say your multicultural employee’s written communication needs significant work before she can distribute it to important clients. You’ve provided impartial, job-focused and sensitive feedback on the improvements she needs to make over the following year, and you’ve given thought to the appropriate resources to help meet her needs. You’ve laid out some potential objectives for her to aim for throughout the year ahead. Finally, you’ve noted that she also has expressed goals — specifically, a desire to take on team leader responsibilities in the next couple of years.

Quarterly Performance and Development Plan

Sample Performance Management Plan

With this approach, instead of dreading a protracted year-end process that rarely meets anyone’s needs, you’ll be armed with a blueprint to facilitate shorter, more timely investments throughout the year. This approach will avoid having “issues that initially presented as a small problem become an elephant in the room by the time the review comes around,” as Murch put it, and give both manager and employee the time and inspiration they need to make the most of feedback and development opportunities.

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