How United Airlines Created More Collaborative Performance Reviews

When United Airlines and Continental Airlines merged in 2010, the newly formed company had to figure out what to do with disparate procedures for conducting annual performance reviews. The HR team decided it needed a fresh approach.

“We knew we needed to take a step back and not try to bring the two systems together, but rather come up with a new, custom program that worked for the new United — one that was built on a key value of our ‘working together’ culture,” said Ted Forbes, the company’s managing director of talent management.

United’s goal for the new performance management system and other talent management processes was straightforward: integrate two cultures and reinforce a working together philosophy to represent the new culture.

“Working together is about treating people the way you’d like to be treated, focusing on teamwork, communicating openly, honestly and with dignity and respect,” Forbes said. “All of these pieces are reflected in the new performance management program.”

Forbes said the program gets both the employees and the managers on the same page — setting expectations on what it means to perform and contribute to the team. The program had to be simple, practical and easily executable so that it would be welcomed and adopted by the organization.

Two different models were in place at each airline before the merger. One airline did not have a broad-based pay-for-performance program, so although there were ratings guidelines, they were simply that and were not stringently followed.

“Over time ratings tended to skew high,” said Cindy Seffair, United’s director of performance management and competency development. “So in many cases, because there was not a direct tie to pay, the rating itself became the award.”

The other airline did have a pay-for-performance program, but its ratings were assigned on a stricter curve. As a result, calibration sessions — meetings in which leaders came together to decide performance ratings — were often competitive. A leader who could better advocate for his or her team members often ended up with the highest ratings, not always reflective of performance.

Building a Collaborative Calibration Process
In the new program, United built a calibration process that promotes positive conversation and collaboration. Leaders are no longer able to come to calibration sessions with pre-populated performance ratings. The process is reversed. Leaders are encouraged to think about individuals outside of their immediate teams and comment on the distinguished performance of peers’ team members first.

“Our whole goal with the new sessions is to offer a holistic view of employees and have leaders reach a consensus collectively,” said Dana Kurek, performance management and competency planning program manager.

The calibration sessions begin by setting ground rules so everyone knows what to expect. Together, the team determines what being “valued,” “exceeds” and “outstanding” means for their team and writes a description of each ranking. Then all employees are set at “valued” and individuals can only be moved up during the conversation. If necessary, leaders can choose “does not meet expectations” as the starting position for their employees instead of “valued.”

The group decides together what defines excellent performance, and then employees are rated based on those descriptions and in comparison to their peer group. United also discontinued the practice of moving employees’ ratings down during the calibration session. Kurek said starting everyone at “valued” changes the tone of the meeting from competitive to constructive and positive.

Seffair said the new requirement for managers to identify employees from other teams is the most unique and valuable aspect of the program. “When we first pitched the idea, we knew a lot of our leaders scratched their heads and gave us a puzzled look, but it has proven to be a very important part of the process.”

Further, it helps set the stage for a positive discussion. Instead of starting the session by having to defend one’s own employees and their ratings, leaders instead get to hear others talk about their high-impact team members, and they get to do the same for other teams.

Seffair said it’s also a great way for managers to see how others view their team members. If leaders hear lots of positive feedback, it reinforces that what they’re doing is working. If they are not getting as much positive feedback about their team as they’d like, it indicates what to work on.

The goal is to change the way people work with one another. When managers know they will be asked to talk about other employees during the review process, it motivates them to pay attention to others when working together and collaborating throughout the year.

“We’re reinforcing the idea of collaboration at United, and this new process builds on that idea,” Seffair said. “It gets people in a mindset of thinking as a team and how all their roles connect to one another. We don’t work in isolation, so we shouldn’t evaluate our employees in isolation. We really need one another to get things done.”

Leaders also get to see how others are performing on other teams, see where talent is and perhaps see if someone could be a great addition to their own team someday. Employees benefit as well. Despite United’s size, they know others are looking at their performance and that could help grow their careers.

“Encouraging leaders to talk about employees and make rating decisions based on the performance standards that were collectively set was really United’s ‘aha moment,’” Kurek said.

Kurek said to ensure leaders feel like they have a voice in determining their team’s ratings, leaders can respond to comments made about their team members and point out another member of their team who wasn’t mentioned if they feel it’s noteworthy. It’s an opportunity to speak to their own experiences with their team since they know them best. They can bring that up to the rest of the leaders and see if they agree or have anything to add. This part is crucial to paint the most complete performance picture.

Simplify Ratings Levels
The new program has four levels of ratings: outstanding performance, exceeds expected performance, valued performance and performance expectations not met.

To earn an outstanding performance rating, a worker must consistently and significantly exceed performance expectations and set the highest standards of performance relative to peers within the organization. Those who earn the exceeds expected performance rating consistently exceed expectations and outperform valued performance peers within the organization. To earn valued performance, a worker’s performance consistently meets and may occasionally exceed expectations; a worker performs well relative to other valued performance peers within the organization. Lastly, to receive a rating of performance expectations not met, a worker’s performance does not consistently meet expectations and does not match peers’ performance within the organization.

At the end of the calibration session, leaders take a look at the descriptions they agreed upon and check them against the discussions they’ve had about the employee to see if upward movement is warranted. The process continues until all employees have been placed and agreed upon by the group.

Forbes said simplicity is key to the program’s success. Some organizations use three ratings and some use five. It’s less about the number of categories and more about managers being on the same page in terms of the standards for categories and having discipline about fitting the distribution guidelines.

Flying High — Initial Wins
United’s new performance review process has received positive feedback, led to decreased complaints across the system, and overall everyone has been more engaged. Ninety-eight percent of all managers submitted their reviews on time for 2012, compared to 68 percent the prior year.

“In 2012, United came very close to hitting all of the distribution targets it set for the program, and did so with very little, if any, resistance from managers,” Forbes said. “The previous year, the company came very close as well, but heard so much noise afterward. That shows us that this new process, which incorporates a positive collaborative atmosphere, works better for our people.”

Seffair said the three most important things to keep in mind when developing a new performance management program are: keep it simple, do it collectively and be patient. It will take time to get everyone on board and involved.

“Developing a new program in a vacuum of HR employees will never produce the best program for the company,” she said. “You need to solicit feedback from a wide variety of stakeholders and leaders. Then don’t just solicit the feedback, listen to it. Incorporate their concerns and ideas into it. They’ll in turn be more likely to adopt and use the program effectively.”

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a California-based journalist. She can be reached at