20 Ideas for Rethinking Employee Performance Reviews

by Daniel Hannig

The employee performance review is a rite of passage at every job. It’s an accepted convention that once a year, you will meet with your boss one-on-one to discuss the quality of your work in the past year. Your strengths and weaknesses will be covered and your salary may be renegotiated. But is this the best way to inform employees of their progress? Can one annual conversation really do the job?

A 2014 Human Capital Institute (HCI) study found that giving performance reviews was the second most hated activity after firing people — and few people think they work. Timing plays an enormous part in the bias and application of performance reviews–if an evaluator recently had an unpleasant experience with a peer, then that can cloud their entire working relationship over the past year. By the same token, raises can be unequally distributed based on how much budget is left throughout the year.

Want to learn more about this topic? Download our Employee Engagement ebook Download PDF

Despite the unpopularity of performance reviews, they do serve a valuable purpose in an employee’s development. They clarify expectations and let people know whether or not they are on the right track. They give management the opportunity to discreetly suggest improvements and/or to reward quality work. They also give employees a holistic view of how their work is perceived, and may even reward them with praise that goes unmentioned in their day-to-day interactions.

Dismissing performance reviews altogether would remove a valuable learning opportunity from employees and their employers. Instead, organizations should tailor their performance reviews to practically address their needs, vision, and core values. Performance reviews shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. It is up to the organization to design performance reviews for their employees that are the least time-consuming and the most insightful.

As we near the end of the year–peak performance review season–let’s take a look at some tips to make the process as efficient, fair, and insightful as possible.

20 ideas to bring to your next performance review

  1. An employee’s first review should take place between three to six months after their start date. It gives them valuable insight into how they can improve and integrate more into the organization before their annual performance review. Give employees advance notice so that they can adequately prepare.
  2. Instead of a once-a-year process, institute a culture of compassionate evaluation. Keep tabs on performance year-round, and nudge employees in the right direction so that the yearly review isn’t such an undertaking. Set clear goals for evaluations, and communicate them to the employee.
  3. Before the review period, let employees know that they are free to suggest updates to their job descriptions. Accurate job descriptions set the right standard by which employees should be evaluated. Without understanding the full scope of someone’s work, you could be unfairly judging their output.
  4. Reference job descriptions in your review meeting. Many jobs take on a life of their own, changing with time and shifting demands. Referencing the employee’s original job description can shape the discussion in positive ways. Have they met the demands of the description? Should it be changed to fit the position as it truly is? Was an inaccurate description inadvertently setting them up to fail in some way?
  5. Develop metrics for measuring performance throughout the year. By connecting performance to specific goals or sales targets, employees can see an unbiased way of measuring the success of their projects. KPIs also give employees a way of knowing how they are performing throughout the year, so they are less likely to be blindsided by their performance review.
  6. Show respect to your employees by ensuring reviews are done face-to-face, however difficult scheduling may be. With so much riding on a yearly performance review, it’s a bad idea–and an inconsiderate one–to perform it over Skype or, worse still, a phone call.
  7. Solicit a variety of perspectives. Managers often don’t spend enough time with individual employees to have a holistic view of how they work. In the 360° model of evaluations, employees invite their peers to rate their performance. By seeing feedback from a diverse cross-section of roles and specialties, employees can have a broad understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Above all, avoid making it a top-down, one-way assessment that doesn’t address the underlying causes and frustrations that can be uncovered with a more thorough solution.
  8. Get their thoughts first. Open the conversation by asking employees to evaluate their own performance. Employees can highlight contributions that might have been overlooked, or provide more context on projects that went awry. It can be useful to have employees measure their own performance by the same metrics that they will be evaluated by their peers or manager. Identifying gaps between their perception of their own work and the perception of their work by those around them is a good starting point for improvement.
  9. Start with a little light small talk. It should feel as much like a conversation as possible. If the environment is overly formal or uncomfortable, it can be distracting to the employee that you are reviewing. They might feel so nervous and ill at ease that they don’t retain much of the feedback that they receive. If they are able to respond to their review as it happens, they can feel more in control of the situation.
  10. Be honest and forthright. Many managers avoid negative feedback and–purposely or not–will give their employees positive ratings in order to avoid having to have an awkward conversation. Others may even do so to inflate their department’s standing in the company. It’s equally damaging to give high performers a lower score than they deserve. This can quickly lead to low morale and high turnover from the best staff you’ve got. Another reason to be careful: misleading performance reviews can be submitted as evidence in a wrongful termination suit.
  11. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Annual performance reviews bring up topics like salary increases, bonuses, and contract extensions. Avoid committing to, or even hinting at, any positive changes that aren’t yet confirmed.
  12. Don’t compare employees. While some employees may set a benchmark for your department’s performance, some other employees might not be able to meet that standard because of factors outside of their control. Mentioning other employees in a performance review is demoralizing for the person whose performance you should be addressing.
  13. Be open to hard questions. Nobody has all the answers, and your employees will understand that. If you can’t come up with a solution together during the performance review, commit to following up on finding an answer. If necessary, approach HR to design an appropriate, legally-viable approach.
  14. Beware of a purely numerical grading system. Evaluators might grade the first few employees differently than employees they review later, leading them to go back to revise earlier scores. Evaluators may only grade employees near the numerical average to avoid appearing extreme.
  15. Be specific. If you want an employee to be more organized, name a specific instance when their work suffered from a lack of organization (did they miss a deadline?). Keeping notes throughout the year can help jog your memory once performance review season rolls around. Employees can become frustrated if they can’t connect a point of criticism to an identifiable misstep. If you aim to provide coaching, it helps to focus on cause and effect, instead of offering vague critiques based on perceived patterns.
  16. Define next steps. If an employee’s performance merits some intervention, work with them on an action plan to bring the quality of the work up to your standards. Look into any external factors that contribute to less than satisfactory performance. Offer support and coaching where you can and let employees know that you’re there to help.
  17. Take your time. Performance reviews are a time-consuming process, but employees are intensely emotionally invested in the results. With such high stakes, employees want to know that the quality of their work is valued and carefully considered. Give yourself enough time to be deliberate and thoughtful in the feedback you give employees.
  18. Consider your words well. If you know that a review will be difficult, plan how you want to phrase your feedback. There is an infinite number of ways you can put your suggestions into words, so try to find a way of saying what needs to be said in a way that minimizes hurt feelings.
  19. Own your opinions. If you’re delivering bad news, it can seem easier in the moment to put the blame elsewhere or to backtrack. But criticisms that are worth sharing must be criticisms that you believe are true. Make sure that you are firm in your opinion.
  20. End on a positive note. Performance reviews are stressful and emotionally taxing on employees. The least a manager can do is leave them feeling that the experience was a valuable investment in their future progress. Try to lighten the conversation again with more casual topics and offer reassurance if appropriate.

Performance reviews don’t have to be a chore that your employees dread. With the right combination of trust, actionable feedback, and recognition, performance reviews can leave employees energized to improve. It may take a few rounds of tinkering to find a performance review model that gives management and employees the guidance to make positive changes, but that’s to be expected. What matters most is designing a performance review that is right for your organization.


Budgeting for Employee Engagement

Do you find budgeting for employee engagement challenging? Well, you are not alone. As an HR professional, you regularly need to evaluate where your company’s HR spending has generated the most success, and where you can afford to save. While many human resource experts have preached the importance of creating a workplace environment where employees are motivated, fulfilled, and healthy, one question always lingers: Where do we find the money?

Read more

Employee Engagement Begins with your Company’s Core Values

In any community, shared values are what bring people together. They let members know what’s right, what’s wrong, and what outcomes people should prioritize over others. Shared values keep people moving toward the same goal. In a way, they are the foundation of any relationship–I trust that you will behave in this way because we both believe behaving that way isn’t right. It’s true too for workplaces. While codified corporate values might seem a little cheesy now (remember the “flair” in Office Space?

Read more

Mentoring: How Does it Work and Who Should be One?

Experience is a powerful resource that isn’t always easy to quantify. While some companies hire for potential value over previous experience, the deep knowledge gleaned from years within a role or organization is incredibly valuable. Millennials are now entering intermediate and senior level positions, and will comprise 75% of the workforce by 2025. Mentoring is one way to prepare millennial employees for leadership positions and guide them through their career development.

Read more