Performance reviews are vital to the development of your employees, your teams, and your organisation as a whole.
A survey by TriNet and Wakefield Research found that nearly 70% of millennials (the most represented generation in the UK workforce) are confident that the employee performance review process can help them to learn and grow… at least in theory.
However, the same survey found that 69% of millennials think the process is flawed, and that 74% feel “in the dark” about what their managers and peers really think of their professional performance.
In other words, most companies should seriously consider improving their employee performance review process.
But what is a performance review? Why are they so important? And how can you execute them well, so that you and your employees can reap the benefits?
In simple terms, the performance review process involves an employee and their manager reflecting on their performance and discussing how it can be improved.
Performance reviews are a key process in helping each employee develop professionally, and they can massively benefit both your employees and your company’s bottom line.
In this article we offer 17 tips for getting the employee performance review process right, and provide a handy template to get you started. First we’ll go into a bit more detail about what a performance review is and why conducting them regularly is so important.
What Is a Performance Review?
A performance review is a regular review process in which an employee and their manager work together to evaluate the employee’s work performance and decide how they can improve it in the future.
The performance review process draws together the employee’s self-evaluation, their manager’s evaluation of their performance, and wider feedback (or 360 degree feedback) from their peers.
The process culminates in a one-to-one conversation between the employee and their manager about their work performance and its impact on their teammates and the organisation as a whole.
The goal of a performance review is to help each employee improve their individual performance, whether this be via continuous coaching from the manager or through interventions the manager or organisation can make to assist with this.
A performance review can also be called a performance appraisal or a performance evaluation. It can also be called a performance snapshot, as the record of each performance review reflects a moment in an individual’s work performance journey.
Why Are Performance Reviews Important?
Performance reviews are a key process for improving and developing the performance of your employees, your teams, and your organisation as a whole.
These meetings provide a regular, formal mechanism for managers and employees to communicate about what employees need to improve and develop and celebrate successes and wins.
Employee performance reviews are important because they’re one of the main ways a company can regularly commit to refining its workflows and building the capabilities of its teams, helping its employees to develop professionally in the process.
17 Tips for Conducting Great Performance Reviews
An organisation that does employee performance reviews well can set its sights on improved productivity, increased staff engagement and retention, and fulfilled workers with bright futures ahead of them.
On the other hand, an organisation that does employee performance reviews badly—or simply neglects them—should expect ongoing individual performance challenges that employees don’t know how to face on their own, continuous teamwork issues that don’t get addressed, and even disengaged employees who feel unsure about how they can improve or develop.
To avoid this scenario (and improve your feedback performance as a manager) follow these tips:
1. Make the Time and the Space
You need to demonstrate the importance of your performance review meetings to communicate that you are listening and that you genuinely care about the improvement and development of each employee.
The first way to do this is by making enough time available for you to have these meetings, and in the appropriate space.
The more frequent your performance reviews are (more on this in the next tip) the less time they’ll probably take up, but as a general rule you should set aside 30 minutes for monthly or quarterly review meetings.
Performance review meetings should take place in a space that gives both the employee and their manager enough privacy to have honest conversations, i.e. in a private meeting space rather than in the middle of a communal office.
Some managers choose to hold their performance review meetings in a nearby coffee shop, as this offers sufficient privacy from colleagues but can be a more welcoming and comfortable space for the employee.
Of course, for remote workers a performance review meeting will probably happen via video call, but managers can make this process more celebratory by ordering the employee a coffee or meal for delivery. If possible, it might be nice to arrange to meet in person. At Learnerbly, we have co-working passes available and on occasion even our colleagues based outside of London will make the trip into the city to meet up with others. It could be nice to organise performance reviews in this way.
Ideally, performance review meetings should happen in a setting that takes the employee out of their day-to-day grind and lets them think about their achievements and the bigger picture of their work.
2. Do This Often
In the past, performance review meetings typically happened only once a year, and many companies still follow this historical trend.
However, today’s best practice is to have these conversations throughout the year—at least once a quarter, or even once a month. Performance management should be an ongoing conversation rather than an annual performance report.
This frequency helps managers stay more in touch with each employee and their work so they can give better-informed performance and development advice.
It also helps each employee become more comfortable and familiar with the performance management process, and engage more effectively as a result.
3. Evaluate Efforts, Not People
Focus on evaluating employees’ behaviours and efforts, not the people themselves and their personal traits.
This allows you to evaluate each employee on the work they put in, which they can control, rather than on their innate talents or traits, which they cannot change.
For example, let’s say someone has a fear of public speaking and it really doesn’t come naturally to them. Even so, they work hard on creating a presentation, spend time practicing it, and they deliver the presentation even though this scares them.
You should celebrate the mammoth effort and devotion that this person put into giving the best presentation they could - even if your clients were more impressed with the presentation of your confident colleague, who is a natural public speaker and can deliver an engaging presentation without trying very hard.
Evaluating people’s actual efforts above their personal traits means recognising the effort your people are making rather than letting their personal traits (for example being naturally good or bad at public speaking) dictate your reviews.
4. Look to the Future
In the past, performance reviews tended to focus only on the employee’s performance over the past year, with little reference to the road ahead.
Now, however, best practice is to orient performance management around the employee’s immediate and long-term future with the company: how they can improve their performance in the short term, and what goals they can work towards in the long term.
Each employee should leave their performance review meeting feeling informed about what steps they can take to grow, even if they’ve struggled with this in the past.
5. Put Self-Evaluation First
Have each employee reflect on their own performance in writing before each formal performance review meeting. This can help them prepare for the conversation and help you see how they view their own performance.
Tools like Leapsome, Lattice and 7Geese can help guide you and your people through this process.
Seeing how an employee rates their own performance can give managers insight into how people perceive their responsibilities and their own abilities to fulfil them.
If there is a big difference between your and your employee’s review of their performance, you need to reflect on what you could do differently moving forward so that you and your employee stay on the same page in the future.
6. Prepare an Agenda
Don’t waste either person’s time by hesitating. Prepare an agenda so you know exactly what you are going to discuss.
Having a standard framework for these meetings can be a helpful guide for your agenda. We recommend the “four Fs” framework, which comprises of:
- Framing: Start your meeting by summarising what you’re going to discuss and why it’s important. Share key points up front so that people don’t spend time anxiously waiting for “good” or “bad” news.
- Feedback: Give context for the rating you have assigned, and invite discussion about this. The AID feedback model is a great port of call if you need more guidance on giving specific feedback!
- Feelings: Help people process whatever emotional response they have to your feedback. Help them label what they’re feeling. Listen and learn about what’s driving this response and what really matters to them. You may need to repeat the “feedback” and “feelings” steps a couple of times before you’re ready for the next step, which is:
- Future: Come up with a plan together for what you and your employee can do to improve their performance going forward. What existing knowledge and skills can they draw on to do this, and what next steps can you agree on?
Each person should leave a performance review meeting with a clear understanding of their performance rating, and feeling empowered to improve the next one.
7. Use Radical Candor
Speaking with radical candor means giving people honest, constructive feedback without being unnecessarily hurtful, and it can be a delicate balance to strike.
If you get this balance wrong you risk either hurting people with the way you deliver constructive feedback, or neglecting people’s long-term growth by withholding the criticism they need to hear.
If you need to give significant constructive feedback, you’ll likely also want to spend time choosing your words carefully beforehand so that you can tell the employee what they need to hear to improve, without making them feel disheartened.
Work on cultivating radical candor in your teams—we’ve written more about this here.
8. Centre the Data
Before you even think about scheduling performance review meetings, make sure that all your employees know what the criteria are for an effective performance and how they can measure them.
It’s unfair to hold an employee accountable for their performance if they don’t know what is expected of them and how to gauge whether or not they are doing a good job.
It’s also a good idea to draw on as much data as you can when reviewing each employee’s performance. Base your review around the data you have about all the different ways the person’s work impacts the organisation.
To measure the person’s impact on their teammates and coworkers, use data from one-to-ones, previous performance reviews, and 360 degree feedback.
To make sure you’re being fair don’t give positive or negative feedback on an employee's performance without backing it up with data, or at the very least with anecdotal examples.
9. Beware of Unconscious Bias
Subconscious bias against certain groups of people can creep into how we evaluate people and which opportunities we give them, way more than we realise.
One particular form of cognitive bias to watch out for when conducting a performance review is the halo or horns effect - these are two different unconscious bias phenomena that work in opposite ways.
The halo effect describes how people can judge someone’s entire performance more positively if they show certain characteristics.
In particular, if someone shows positive tangible or easily-measurable characteristics, for example higher sales numbers, then we are likely to give them higher ratings for their intangible or less measurable qualities, for example their leadership ability.
The halo effect can also cause us to evaluate people more positively based on demographic or physical factors.
Research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that people earn more on average based on how tall they are.
The horns effect describes the negative of the same phenomenon: people can judge someone’s entire performance negatively based on certain demographic or physical factors.
We need to be as aware as we can of these biases and try not to let them affect how we evaluate our people’s performance.
When filling in a performance evaluation, always ask yourself whether the halo or horns effect could be at play, and adjust your ratings accordingly if you think it is.
It’s also a good idea to avoid making “always” and “never” statements about someone’s performance. These statements reflect a kind of “black and white” thinking that is unhelpful in the non-linear processes of growth and development. What’s more, they usually aren’t true.
10. Avoid Recency Bias
Your view of a person’s performance might be strongly influenced by the most recent examples you can think of, which you can remember most clearly because they happened only a short time ago. This is called recency bias, and it can lead to an inaccurate review.
For example, if someone’s overall performance over the last quarter was fantastic but they had a big slip-up the week before their performance review you should avoid letting this event colour your perception of their entire quarter’s worth of work.
Remember that you can also better improve performance by focusing on continuous patterns, rather than just a few stand-out events. This is why it’s important to have performance conversations so regularly.
11. Don’t Compare People
When giving feedback, avoid comparing someone’s performance to that of a teammate or coworker.
Comparing people with others is unhelpful because everyone is dealing with completely different personal strengths and weaknesses and circumstances that uniquely affect their performance.
It could also seed conflict by making employees resent coworkers with whom they are negatively compared, or look down on those with whom they are positively compared.
12. Don’t Speculate
Don’t share your speculations about potential promotions or company changes in the future, as this could raise false hopes or arouse unnecessary anxiety in your employees.
When talking about the person’s future with your organisation, only share confirmed information about future plans.
13. Don’t Repeat Yourself
Performance reviews should improve performance each time they're conducted and reflect a process of continuous growth - or at least trying new strategies for improving. If you find yourself repeating exactly the same feedback and advice more than once, it’s likely ineffective.
If your repetitive feedback is positive and you have little else to discuss, this may be a sign that you’re not giving a strong performer enough challenges or growth opportunities.
If you’re repeatedly giving the same constructive feedback, it may be that you need to rethink your strategy for tackling the problem at hand because whatever feedback and advice you gave the last time didn’t have the desired effect. You could also ask yourself what other support or training you could be giving the employee to help them.
14. Be a Coach, Not a Judge
As a manager conducting performance reviews, avoid thinking of yourself as a judge doling out prizes for good work or punishment for bad deeds.
Rather, in these meetings you should be trying to function as a kind of coach for someone’s work performance.
Coaches help people identify and develop the strengths that set them apart. They also help people pinpoint their key development areas and square up to the challenge of improving them. Managers should do the same.
In a team context, coaches (and managers) should also help employees develop the teamwork processes and interpersonal relationships that help the team do its best work together.
15. Focus on Growth, Not Just Improvement
Remember that the performance review process should ultimately help your employees grow their skill sets and build their careers. It shouldn’t be a short-term affair of correcting mistakes as they arise.
In fact, focusing on someone’s flaws rather than their potential can obscure important possibilities.
Sometimes someone’s “poor performance” in one role can indicate that they aren’t suited to the position, but they might thrive in a different role. Recently, we held a webinar and hosted Alice ter Haar of Badass Unicorn. She shared the story of how feedback from her manager made her realise she wasn’t suited to marketing and that her skillset actually lent her more to a People role.
Focusing only on employees' immediate shortcomings can prevent managers from making the most of their long-term potential.
16. Adopt an Open-Door Policy
Keep your office door (virtual or otherwise) open for any employee who wants to discuss performance issues or growth opportunities that may come up before their next performance review.
Communicate your willingness and openness to discuss these things with your team at anytime. It can be a quick chat or you can set up something formal in your schedule but the key is to make yourself available.
If you’re working with remote employees, it might be a good idea to set up “drop in” hours when your people can jump on a video call for a spontaneous chat. Remind them that you’re available for support or advice when they need it.
Having an open-door policy will help you build better communications with your employees and keep track of their ongoing performance, which will make your review meetings less research-intensive on your end.
17. End on a High Note
Close your performance review meeting with a reiteration of the praise you have given the employee and the plans you have made together for improving their performance and future growth.
Psychological research shows that people tend to remember the end of an experience the most clearly and even build their memory of an experience around how it ended.
So ending a performance review with a summary and a final positive comment can help your employees better remember the resolutions you made, and remember the meeting as a positive experience overall.
A strong performance review process can make the difference between engaged employees who continuously improve and stay with your organisation for a long time, and disengaged employees who are unsure about how they can improve and might soon seek greener pastures elsewhere.
To carry out an effective performance review and build a strong performance review process, make sure you:
- Make enough time for each meeting, and hold it in an appropriate space
- Hold performance reviews at least once a quarter
- Evaluate people’s efforts, not their personal traits
- Talk about the future
- Give employees the time and resources to self-evaluate before their performance review
- Prepare an agenda beforehand
- Communicate with radical candor
- Base your feedback on as much data as possible
- Beware of subconscious biases like the halo and horns effects
- Avoid recency bias
- Don’t compare people
- Don’t share unfounded speculations about a person’s or the company’s future
- Don’t repeat the same advice in multiple meetings
- Think of yourself as a coach, not a judge
- Think about long-term growth, not just short-term corrections
- Have an open-door policy between reviews
- End on a positive note
We’re also preparing a handy template that you can use for your performance reviews going forward! Keep an eye out for it 😉