Area Man Fixes Employee Reviews

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Aug. 13 2014 2:47 PM

Area Man Fixes Employee Reviews

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Employee reviews, with a side of satire.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This story originally appeared in Inc.

When it comes to fun places to work, it’s easy to imagine that, near the top of the list, you’d find the publication behind such headlines as “Dolphins Evolve Opposable Thumbs: ‘Oh Shit.’ Says Humanity,” and “Kitten Thinks of Nothing but Murder All Day.

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The Onion’s editorial voice may project an air of scrappiness and a cavalier attitude, but it’s now been around for 26 years. The Chicago-based company not only publishes TheOnion.com and The A.V. Club, but also a new site parodying clickbait online headlines, called Clickhole. It also runs Onion Labs, a marketing and advertising agency.

But the roughly 100-person staff at The Onion has a lot of the same petty disputes and HR challenges familiar to anyone who’s worked at a decent-sized company: disagreements between colleagues, indifferent employees considering jumping ship, unvoiced complaints that fester. Or so one learns from a case study of The Onion provided to Inc. by a company it works with called 15Five.

When Tim Breslin was hired in February as vice president of product at The Onion, he set out to find a way to create a healthy feedback cycle that would mend such issues—or even nix them before they took root. “My goal was to give my team a voice and show them I was listening, without making it a chore,” Breslin said in the case study.

He turned to 15Five, a San Francisco–based startup that created a communication tool most known for its weekly employee surveys, which it sells to businesses. It currently has about 1,000 customers. These run the range from startups, such as Zirtual, to larger private companies, such as Warby Parker, to nonprofits, such as the American Red Cross.

The 15Five survey used by employees at its client-companies is customizable, but it generally takes the form of a simple weekly online survey. It requires no more than 15 minutes to complete. That feedback is almost immediately submitted to a supervisor, who is encouraged to give rapid feedback—even if it’s just clicking a social media­–inspired “heart” button. A full review of the employee’s weekly feedback should take a manager no more than five minutes. (Hence 15Five.) 

“People say, ‘Wow, I spent just a few minutes on this, and the company is already doing things that are going to improve my work life,’ ” said David Hassell, the serial entrepreneur who launched 15Five at a tech conference in 2012.

He says the quick process, aimed to make the traditional (and often uninspired) employee-review system unnecessary, was inspired by a workplace strategy employed by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, who was legendary for infusing his company with an esteem for a healthy work-life balance. “He realized that if he asked all of his employees to spend 15 minutes writing a report that took their manager no more than 5 minutes to read, his employees would feel heard and he would have better insight into the workings of his company,” the company’s website explains. 

That sentiment resonated with Hassell, who says: “Business has been dehumanized in the past century. You hear people say, ‘I left that company because I felt like a cog.’ ”

Before the 15Five system was instituted at The Onion, the company’s editorial, design, engineering, and administrative employees used a “hodgepodge of Google Docs, Basecamp, and email to submit feedback to their manager,” according to the case study. While an appropriately scrappy approach for The Onion, employees didn’t feel like their concerns were truly heard—itself likely a symptom of managers struggling to review and respond to feedback.

In the case study, The Onion’s manager of product Breslin says now he spends just a couple hours each week on employee feedback. He adds, “Sometimes, I assume everyone is happy, but weekly 15Fives show otherwise and I find out about smaller problems in time to address them before they get any bigger.” (A spokesman at The Onion did not provide a company interview by deadline.)

In their 15Five surveys, several employees mentioned they’d love access to some healthy snacks at work. Within days, management began providing fruit, granola bars, nuts, and fresh juices for the break room.

“Sometimes, it’s the little things that really improve morale,” Breslin says he realized.

But there are big things at play, too: According to the case study, that employee who was mulling another job offer ended up staying put at The Onion

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a senior writer at Inc. Follow her on Twitter.

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