Career conversations: Can we make this a thing?

Career Conversations

What if we replaced the traditional performance review with something called career conversations?

Let’s follow a bouncing ball here quickly. Some companies — including some big, legacy ones — are removing the idea of performance reviews. This is logical. Performance reviews are mostly a dumpster fire more rooted in process than, well, actually improving the employee being evaluated. There’s been research for years that killing performance reviews will actually develop employees quicker. But, you know, change is hard. That’s Issue 1. Issue 2 is that performance reviews are one of the only things HR truly “owns,” and a lot of work is about telling everyone else what you “own” process-wise. If the performance review goes away, does that make HR less relevant? It might.

Issue 3 is this: when you remove performance reviews, what do you replace them with? In a lot of companies, that answer has been “absolutely nothing.” Here is what’s happening. Most hard-charging guys running point at different companies don’t really care about this idea of performance reviews or employee development. They have their lieutenants. They know their silo. The rest of it is just noise to them. Who wants to sit and evaluate 14 drones who will never get to the level I’m at, right? I need to go analyze some revenue plays, not do this HR bullshit.

That’s the general attitude you see with a lot of chest-pounding workaholics. Performance reviews are “fluffy HR stuff,”and they are “money guys.” So when the performance review gets axed, they basically replace it with nothing. “Everyone should know where they stand,” the theory goes. This is almost completely untrue, but whatever. We’ll gloss that over for right now.

I could write this post and discuss something like “organic feedback given consistently,” but we all know that’s bullshit. Most people spend their entire work week worshiping at The Temple of Busy. When you worship there, you have no time for “organic feedback.” It’s a giant myth. Out of every 20 managers, I’d say 2-3 are capable of doing that successfully. Most are just running between meetings and calls and updating spreadsheets for their boss. This is most of first-world, white-collar work — to the tune of 21.4 million managers adding no economic value. Sad.

But look, if we’re killing performance reviews anyway — good! — can’t we replace it with this career conversations idea?

What are career conversations, exactly?

I’m assuming you can figure this out logically, but if not, here’s the article where I got the idea. In that article, career conversations are defined as “deep, meaningful dialogue coupled with action plans around measurable goals.” Sounds like a deplorable mix of business buzzwords, but I think you get the general idea here. Here’s the money quote on all of it:

“I’ve seen this play out in practice over and over and over. People are surprised that they can grow towards their dreams and stay put in their current role,” says Laraway. “This is one of the side benefits to this approach to career conversations. It can reduce any ants-in-the-pants of wanting to leave or be promoted. As a manager, one of your prime jobs is to help the people on your team develop.”

If you’re wondering who “Laraway” is, try this:

If this stuff interests you, I’d read that whole article above. It does have a lot of practical advice on career conversations.

What would career conversations look like?

One of the ideas mentioned above is “be their Barbara Walters,” which means this. You schedule a 1-hour meeting with a direct report. You ask them real, probing, pertinent questions about their life and career to this point. Why did they make this decision? How about that one? This is a very rare experience for most first-world, white-collar employees. Their managers tend to only talk to them when they (a) fuck up or (b) the manager needs something. This real, deep, connected type of conversation — career conversations! — is very rare. You gotta assume it would be powerful.

Some questions that could frame career conversations might include:

  • You’ve been in this role for (x-amount of time). What are the pros and cons?
  • Are there any responsibilities you’d like to try that you haven’t?
  • What do you see as the next step?
  • Does the work of any other department interest you?
  • Concerns about pay or the middle/top being clogged?
  • Are you aware how promotion decisions are made here?
  • How do you think you could grow?
  • Where do you want to be in 12, 18, 24, 30, and 36 months?

Now look, some of this is overwhelming. An employee might have no idea. It’s a very different type of conversation than we’re used to having or being in. It’ll take some getting-used-to. But consider this …

What’s the central difference between a performance review and career conversations?

A performance review looks backward. Career conversations look forward. Isn’t business supposed to be about growth and moving forward? Right. So shouldn’t how we develop employees be aligned towards the future and not the past?

What gets in the way of  these career conversations, then?

Yea, let’s examine the roadblocks. There are good managers who do this stuff — they have legit career conversations with their people and provide them with opportunities for growth. Is it rare? I’d argue it’s rare, yes. But some managers are doing it. For the rest of them, what gets in the way? I’d offer this partial list:

  • They are assholes who don’t care about people, just themselves (you don’t want this one to be true, but sometimes it is)
  • The belief is that they have no time to worry about this (backed up by this research)
  • Their own career wasn’t necessarily shaped in this way, so they think it’s unnecessary to provide to others
  • Predominantly view their job as “making numbers” for their boss, and focus 99 percent of their attention there
  • Career conversations seem so different, they don’t know where to start
  • Believe process is sacrosanct, and HR has not defined a process for how to have career conversations

Alright. Now we have some ways to conduct career conversations (yay) and some roadblocks to them (boo). What now?

Could career conversations actually work?

Of course. Some things would need to happen, though. Primarily:


There would need to be a process in place: Most people at any job are afraid of doing something sans process. They fear they will get in trouble. Process exists to cover your ass and make you feel better about what’s happening. That’s why it’s so pervasive at companies, which strive to limit liability in the broadest sense. So if HR needs to “own” career conversations, so be it. There needs to be a process or else no one will know where to begin.

Data: You need to be able to say, “We instituted career conversations as opposed to performance reviews. When we did that, turnover decreased by X-percent. Because of that, we saved Y-money this year.” You hand that report to an executive and they will say “Oooooh, more money. This career conversations bullshit is working! Sign me up for another year!”

Embracing awkwardness: These are inherently awkward conversations to have because we’re all so used to “On professionalism, you got a 7 on a 1-10 scale. That is pretty good!” Even though the “7” means absolutely nothing, we understand what it’s like to be in that conversation. This notion of career conversations is much different. We all have to adjust.

Punch the box-checking in the throat: And now, the final section.

Career conversations is not about box-checking

A lot of white-collar work is about box-checking. Update this. Tell me about that. Make sure that thing is done because we’ve always done it that specific way. It’s dumb. Most intelligent people eventually tire of all that garbage. Some want a fat-ass paycheck and bonus, though, so they tolerate it. Economic stagnation is unfortunately making that worse. Alas.

This idea of career conversations is not box-checking. It’s completely real and raw. As noted in this article:

“The idea is to try to get employees to start to talk to you about their dreams, or three to five of them if they don’t really want to commit to one idea. None of it should be time-bound — no 10-year plans. Ask what this person would be doing at the pinnacle of his or her career — when they’re feeling challenged, engaged and not wanting anything else.”

You’re talking about the apex. The pinnacle. The summit! This is real stuff. It ain’t checking boxes. Most of what emerges from HR — and dozens of other departments — is checking boxes. If that’s all you know and are comfortable with, this will never work for you. But if you can push the edges, career conversations just might.

Ted Bauer


  1. As a manager I’ve always said “Develop your people… all else will follow. ” You have provided useful suggestions how to do this.

    Practically speaking I think the two biggest hurdles to implementing not having performance reviews would be documenting:

    1) Why you assigned larger salary increases to some employees rather than others.
    2) Your rationale for layoffs or other reasons for inviting people to leave the business.

    Even if performance reviews remain, the more important discussion is a career conversation.

    • “Rationale for layoffs” is a great point here. Draconian HR rules have made it so that no one has to give those anymore, which can really mess with people.

      • I have been with public agencies for 28 years and never seen any one got promotion based on their performance review. The were promoted by going thru interview process and competing with others.
        Layoff were done based on seniority not base on performance review.

  2. Ted, this is a very good post. I was going to share in across my social network, but I did not do so because of your crude language in a few places. May I recommend that you don’t need these curse words to make your points? Your ideas are excellent. Don’t degrade them with profanity. Best regards.

    • I hear you, sir. I get that sometimes from people and should scale it back.

  3. I love the concept of replacing the backward-looking performance review, but how do we handle necessarily backward-looking incentive comp, particularly where there are not clear performance metrics? Boards continue to press for comp differentiation/pay-for-performance. How to administer?

    • That’s the hard part. Maybe it could be split — your performance drives comp but the conversation is about the future?

    • That’s pretty cool that someone is out there doing this stuff the right way.

  4. I just laughed out loud at “Most intelligent people eventually tire of all that garbage. Some want a fat-ass paycheck and bonus, though, so they tolerate it.” Thanks for the great article.

  5. Hey Ted,

    Interesting post. One thing of note is that companies like GE, Adobe, and Deloitte who are all proudly pushing press about getting rid of performance reviews are replacing them with regular “check-ins” or “1 on 1s”.

    The beauty and advantage of these is that you’re requiring managers to have regular (every 1 – 2 weeks) conversations with everyone on their teams. A big part of this can and should be career conversations, and it also then creates time for things like feedback, coaching, and building a stronger two way communication with the team.

    If you’re not familiar with one on ones, this can give you a great overview and further reading: https://getlighthouse.com/blog/one-on-one-meeting-template-great-leaders/


  6. I agree, performance reviews are backward looking. I just completed reviews with employees and even though the form had an “agreed goals to strive for” most employees wanted to talk about the assigned “score”. and why? Did not see any development qualities what so ever.

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