The Manager’s Survival Guide to Performance Reviews

It’s Monday morning.  You stroll into your office, coffee in hand, ready to start your week.  The computer monitor flickers back to life after a weekend of retreat and the drudgery of reading emails begins.  Only today it’s worse.  Because today there’s an email from HR sitting in your inbox.  The same one that was sent last year.  The one that reminds you that “It’s that time of year!”….and no, I don’t mean Christmas.   As if new budgets and year-end reports weren’t creating enough misery, HR also finds it necessary to subject you to reviewing the performance of your staff.  Again.

While a few companies are making waves by doing away with the formal performance review process, some would agree that this annual meeting still holds value.  Spending some concentrated time discussing employee contributions and future goals can go a long way toward improving employee engagement, boosting morale, and increasing overall production.  Here are five strategies to help you navigate the performance review season.

  1. Prepare (all year long)

As a manager, preparing for a performance review meeting is something you should be doing all year long, not just 15 minutes before you’re scheduled to meet with your employee.  One of the most efficient ways to do this is by completing regular one-on-one meetings with each of your staff throughout the year.

Depending on the size of your team and your proximity, one-on-one meetings can take place weekly, monthly, or at the very least quarterly.  These quick meetings (30 minutes or less) should cover three things:

1)  What is going well?

2)  Where do you need help?

3)  What are the next steps?

By asking what is going well, managers can give their staff members a chance to discuss what projects they are currently working on, as well as an opportunity to showcase progress towards goals or significant accomplishments they’ve made.

When managers ask where their employees need help, two things can occur.  First, employees who may be struggling in a performance area have a “safe place” to share with their manager what they see as an opportunity for improvement.  Likewise, managers can point out performance concerns, giving employees ample time to make corrections before the formal review process.

Finally, asking employees about next steps gives them a refreshed outlook on the future, as well as a plan for ongoing growth and success.  Next steps could include more frequent one-on-one meetings, a new goal or, if there are performance concerns, additional training and development that will garner improved behavior and productivity.

A simple form or even freeform notes can be used to document your one-on-ones throughout the year.  When it’s time to complete the formal performance evaluation, a compilation of your one-on-one meeting notes will make completing the performance review paperwork a breeze.  And when managers conduct these regular meetings with their employees, the end-of-year review meeting suddenly becomes far less uncomfortable for all involved.

  1. Complete Self-Appraisals

Yes, I just added another step to the performance review process, but this unique approach can make a huge difference.  Using the same format as the one-on-one, the Self Appraisal will also answer what the employee thinks is going well, where the employee would like to improve, and what the employee feels should be his/her next steps for the upcoming year.  Completing a self-appraisal gives employees a platform to share what they feel to be their greatest successes of the year, as well as their vision for their future with the company.

Even more powerful, the self-appraisal lets employees demonstrate honestly where they would like to improve.  By giving an employee the green light to admit where they aren’t as strong, managers can spend less time pointing out weaknesses, and more time devising a mutually beneficial plan to get their employee to the next level.  Not all employees will have this level of introspection.  In those instances, a manager will have to address performance gaps directly.

  1. Discuss Performance Gaps

Pointing out opportunities for improvement is never pleasant. But employees have a desire to know where they stand and, as a manager, you owe them that.  However uncomfortable this portion of the performance review may be, there is a way that managers can do it without damaging the esteem of the employee.

  • Be selective in your constructive criticism. Are there multiple areas that need improvement?  Prioritize the list and tackle the most important things first.  Hitting someone with too many criticisms at once can create a feeling of defeat from which many employees won’t be able to recover.
  • Make sure the employee acknowledges the opportunity for improvement. If an employee is particularly obstinate, you will need to come armed with concrete examples of the performance gap.  This may include documented conversations, examples of late or incorrect work, and of course, your one-on-one meeting notes.
  • Identify the root cause. Focus on the behavior, not the person.  Work with your employee to determine what could be causing the performance gap.  Is it lack of training, systems or equipment problems, delegation, or simply a lack of time management or prioritization?  When a performance gap can be traced back to the cause (whether internal or external), employees and managers have a starting point for improving behavior and performance.
  • Use the Compliment Sandwich. It’s said in the South that when you must deliver unpleasant news, “You’d best put a little sugar on it.”  The compliment sandwich is simple.  Start with a positive.  Share the critique.  Then finish with another positive.  When the meat of the critique is sandwiched by two compliments, the employee can better digest it.

Give sincere praise at the beginning and end of the performance review meeting, and you not only give employees the information he/she needs to be successful, but you do so in a way that is least damaging to their esteem.

  1. Document, Document, Document

Bob comes to the HR office demanding that Suzy be terminated for poor performance.  Suzy is late two to three times a week, submits inaccurate reports, and creates negative undercurrents among the group with her passive aggressive behaviors.  This has been going on for several months and Bob is fed up!

The HR Manager pulls Suzy’s file and finds exactly what she was expecting…a stellar performance review.  If Suzy’s performance has been sub-par for months, why wasn’t it addressed during her performance review?

Make it a priority to document any and all verbal coaching sessions.  Written Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) should be implemented when verbal coaching sessions have been exhausted.  If performance continues to suffer, use a FINAL written warning, making it clear that the employee is at risk of termination.  Without strong and consistent documentation, the HR Manager’s hands are tied and Suzy’s impending exit will be delayed.  The result will reflect in slowed production, lower morale, and possibly even lost profits.  Bob will need to start from scratch by addressing Suzy’s behavior (IN WRITING) during their next one-on-one.

  1. Action Steps

You’re almost finished!  No performance review meeting is complete without setting some quantitative goals for the coming year.  Set short term and long term goals that will keep your employee engaged and productive.  Effective goals should also work to advance corporate-wide goals.

Document goals on a rough timeline.  Register your employee for any approved trainings, workshops, or course work that you discussed during the performance review.  Lastly, schedule your one-on-one meetings and stick to them.

By setting aside a little bit of time throughout the year, you’ll be able to track performance progress, deal with any behavior concerns in a timely fashion, and keep your employees on track for a successful year.  Then, when next year rolls around and the dreaded email from HR hits your inbox, you’ll be ready to navigate the performance review season like a pro.