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How King's Hawaiian Ditched Performance Reviews and Reimagined Total Rewards

Two women sitting at a desk talking to each other.

​When Amy Hirsh Robinson took over as chief people officer at King's Hawaiian in 2020, she came in with a bold approach: She wanted to kill the company's performance reviews.

"I've always advocated as a consultant [of employers, Robinson's previous job] that organizations should ditch their performance review process. I think it's antiquated; I don't think it's effective," she said June 14 at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2023 in Las Vegas. "But I had never really experienced the pain of being an internal employee and being an internal leader. Going through this process, I literally wanted to crawl out of my skin, it was that painful."

Employee performance reviews, she said, too often focus on expectations. Employees are too worried about where they stand to have meaningful discussions about feedback, goals, and ways both they and the employer can do better. Plus, reviews done poorly can actually make performance worse. And they often cost too much time and money for the organization, while merit pay is too closely tied to performance reviews, Robinson explained. Through it all, employees don't always know if they're appreciated.

So in 2021, Robinson announced that the Los Angeles-based bakery, known for its sweet Hawaiian-style bread, was doing away with the process; employees would no longer undergo performance reviews after 2022.  

Instead, she wanted to replace the process with regular, continual conversations between managers and employees. Plus, she had a different approach in mind that she thought would improve the employee experience and improve employee performance—a focus on total rewards.

"I burned the ships, and I asked my team for a better approach," she said during her session called "Radically Reimagining Total Rewards: King's Hawaiian's Journey to Irresistibility." "I really challenged them to think differently, and boldly, about total rewards."

Doing so also better aligned with the company's values of "excellence, dignity and telling it like it is in a way that can be heard," she said.

The company looked at employee pay first, ensuring that it reviewed on at least an annual basis the market data and market index, as well as internal compensation metrics, to ensure that employees were paid competitively. Additionally, it "took into account some of the economic headwinds with inflation and gave a one-time supplemental increase to account for any of those headwinds that weren't captured in the market data," Robinson said.

King's Hawaiian also more closely examined rewards for its employees—including monetary awards, employee gifts or perks, like a first-class airline ticket when an employee has a grueling travel schedule coming up.

The company also began looking at all components of employee health and wellness, Robinson said.

"If you invest in people's health—truly holistically, mentally, physically, socially, professionally, financially—then they can show up to live their full potential. And if they're ready with their potential and you invest in it and you develop it, that's when they can provide you with the capabilities you need to drive your business results," she said. "And if they're showing up with these capabilities, we have to pay them competitively. That's our mutual promise: We're investing in them, they're providing the capability, we're paying for that capability. When we do that effectively, we reach success."

Among other initiatives, King's Hawaiian invested in disease management programs; added an online platform so employees can easily see and access their benefits; and ditched its employee assistance program, replacing it with a platform that provides more-personalized outcomes and accessible mental health care. The mental health program provides employees with in-person services so employees can see a therapist, but it also provides for other modalities, like text and online.

The company also began to build an onsite clinic at its large Oakwood, Ga., location so employees—as well as their dependents—can easily access care. "[Employees] can come off a shift, they will be able to have their annual wellness exam, take their vitals, maybe go have a mammogram—all of that is so convenient," Robinson said. "Those are the prevention methods that keep our 'ohana' healthy. And they also obviously reduce our costs."

Also on the docket were new volunteer opportunities and programs for King's Hawaiian employees and, starting this month, a new learning platform.

The company's journey in reimagining its total rewards programs is far from complete, Robinson said. King's Hawaiian is currently looking into other initiatives, like tuition reimbursement and daily pay capabilities—all things that will continue to help employees.

Robinson told HR leaders in attendance that doing away with traditional programs certainly can have its challenges and growing pains—but it's a bold move that can make all the difference to employees.

"Don't underestimate the organizational fear and anxiety of moving away from traditional performance reviews and merit increases," she said. "Even though it was a dysfunctional, broken process, we took away something that people knew and they had been doing for the past 10, 20, 30, 50 years.

"If you go this route, give yourself a lot of grace," she said. "You will need to be bold and courageous, but I promise you, it's worth it."


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