employee performance reviews

Employee performance reviews: how to improve the process

Whether you’re a manager or an employee, just seeing the phrase “employee performance review” may make your jaw clench or your stomach flip.

The traditional review paradigm of calling people onto the carpet once or twice a year for a formal assessment is stressful for everyone involved.

It’s also not as effective as developing your people or reaching your company’s goals as more frequent reviews can be. In this post, we’ll look at how you can optimize your performance review process for more actionable feedback, clearer goals and better results.

Does your organization’s employee review process work?

Let’s start with the obvious: Nobody likes formal annual reviews.

They’re also not a great way to achieve the goals of reviews, which are:

  • Make sure employees understand what’s expected of them.
  • Identify areas for performance improvement.
  • Set goals to support employee development.

Waiting six months or a year to give this kind of feedback just about guarantees that it will be out of date. It also misses ongoing opportunities for relationship-building and guidance throughout the year.

Create a schedule for employee performance reviews.

Coaching and developing in the moment is a more effective approach.

Frequent feedback – weekly, monthly, quarterly or as needed – between major “salary and bonus” review meetings can help managers develop their people and coach them more effectively.

More frequent reviews can also nudge working managers to check in with their team even though they have their own projects to handle.

Because of these advantages, many companies are moving to more frequent one-on-one updates instead of relying on yearly or half-yearly feedback sessions. That requires training managers and supervisors to adopt a new cadence for feedback and to take notes on each session they can use in the bigger annual or semiannual reviews.

Build a plan for your employee performance review process.

Whatever performance review documentation your organization uses, the key is to use it consistently. Follow the guidelines for topics to cover and remember to take notes.

1. Keep good notes.

A log book where you take notes on your conversations with staff members can help you give accurate feedback during your reviews throughout the year.

It also keeps you from making a common review error: only focusing on one or two elements of the employee’s performance that you happen to remember.

2. Plan fair and consistent questions.

In casual review conversations, you might cover one issue in each one, rather than running through a whole performance review checklist.

How can you ensure that you cover all the required issues with each person over the course of a quarter or a year?

Write a series of common questions that you often ask all of your staff members. That can make your reviews more consistent, so you’re not asking one staff member questions that you never ask anyone else.

Communicate your employee review plan clearly.

Ready to revamp your review process? First, you need to talk to your people about it. An ideal approach for communicating these changes is to explain how they’ll support employees and managers.

You may want your conversation to focus on these topics:

  • Waiting too long between reviews leads to stale feedback that’s hard or impossible to act on effectively.
  • Shorter, frequent check-ins offer more opportunities for employee development.
  • The new review process moves managers from a performance-grading role to a coaching role.
  • Frequent updates allow managers and employees to adjust or change performance goals as conditions change.

Prepare for these employee review scenarios.

As a manager, you know that different people can respond differently to the same situation. That’s especially true for performance reviews and feedback. Before your review conversations, even casual ones, think about how you can deal with any of these scenarios.

1. Employees who get emotional

Some people are simply more emotional than others. Part of being an effective leader is having high level of empathy so you can meet those people where they are, instead of getting flustered or shutting down the discussion.

You may need to adjust your approach from the way you give feedback to less emotionally expressive employees.

2. Employees who fall silent

You also need to be prepared for employees who show up but don’t participate. Think about how you can manage the situation if you’re going over their review and asking for their input, and they simply don’t say anything.

You may want to invite them to follow up in a day or two, after they’ve had time to process the information.

3. Employees who get angry or defensive

It’s especially important to plan for employees who may get mad or argue during a review. How are you going to handle that person? These can be difficult conversations, so it’s important to think about how you’ll respond if an employee questions your review methods and fairness during the review.

The better you know your staff, the less likely you are to be surprised by one of these scenarios. Before each review, think about their likely response. You can also time individual reviews to the day of the week or time of day when they’ll be at their least distracted or stressed.

It’s also a good practice to give employees written copies of your review feedback before your conversation. That gives them time to think it over and come up with questions before you talk, instead of trying to read and talk with you at the same time.

Plan to avoid these employee review pitfalls.

Besides planning for employee reactions, you need to assess your own performance at leading these reviews. Here’s how to avoid common managerial mistakes so you can have more productive review conversations.

1. Review the way you rate your people.

With a letter or numeric rating scale, it’s easy to fall into the habit of grading on autopilot – giving everyone a high, low or middle rating to avoid conflict or attempt to motivate them. But employees know when their ratings are inauthentic, and that’s demotivating. Focus on each individual instead.

2. Listen more than you talk.

Avoid doing all of the talking if you can. Developing someone requires a conversation, not a monologue.

  • Practice active listening.
  • Ask for employee feedback.
  • Have employees complete a self-review as part of the process.

3. Don’t make employee reviews about you.

It’s easy to think you would have handled a situation better or differently than your employees. But effective leadership requires stepping back and being objective about that person’s capabilities and skills. It also requires humility – they may have strengths that you don’t.

Comparing employees to yourself can also undermine your organization’s diversity and innovation goals. Ask yourself if their methods are effective, not whether they’re your preferred way of doing things.

4. Take a holistic approach.

Discuss the employee’s work over the entire review period, not only their most recent actions. Even if there are major issues, try not to focus solely on the negatives. Reinforce good work habits while making recommendations that foster improvement.

5. Avoid the blame game.

Criticizing employees for things that are out of their control can do more harm than good and doesn’t resolve the issue. Talk over shortcomings to determine their cause. Then you can address the root of the problem.

6. Set clear goals.

Most performance evaluations require employees to work with their managers on their goals for the next period. To be effective, these goals need to be clearly defined.

As a manager, it’s up to you to help your team understand how to set goals and follow through. The SMART goal approach can help.

7. Be precise, not vague.

Using vague language when you’re setting goals with employees can lead to misunderstandings.

For example, “promptly” or “as soon as possible” are vague. Maybe they mean “ASAP” to you, but “sometime next month” to the employee. Use specific language, especially when you are communicating a deadline.

8. End each review with a plan.

Plan for what you want the employee to work on next. Then follow up on it on the timeline you’ve agreed on during the review.

Better employee performance reviews can help your organization reach its goals.

Effective employee performance reviews begin with everybody being aware of – and, more importantly, understanding – everybody else’s expectations.

With proper goal setting, clear communication and careful planning to avoid pitfalls, you and your team can use more frequent feedback to grow and thrive.

For more ways to build a stronger team, download our free e-book: How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.

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