How to Write Performance Reviews That Get Results

performance-review(This article is the first in a series on annual performance reviews.)

The annual performance review is an important part of the employee performance management cycle, the year-round goal setting, planning, coaching, recognition, feedback, and development that committed leaders engage in. It serves as a bridge between two years: the year that was and the year to come. The evaluation process also impacts employee engagement as it showcases the supervisor’s perceptions of employee talents, skills, contributions, areas for improvement, and career potential. Why then, with so much riding on annual reviews, do so many managers avoid, rush through, or dismiss these documents year in and year out?

Answer: Because they don’t know how to write about performance.

Writing about performance takes practice and experience. Too many managers get thrown into this obligation with no training or guidance. Absent the knowledge of how to do it correctly (and the subsequent confidence that comes with that knowledge), it’s no surprise that annual reviews are treated by many as a cumbersome task to be completed. In an effort to increase your knowledge and boost your confidence, here are 5 critical strategies for producing powerful annual performance reviews:

Draw on the entire year.

When the time comes to author an annual review too many managers rely on their memory which is good for about 3 months of recollection. What ultimately gets produced is an annual review that reads like a 3 month review. Instead, create a system to capture notable accomplishments, tasks, conversations, projects, successes and concerns throughout the year to incorporate into the review. This can be as simple as keeping a folder for each employee to capture notes, emails, etc. all year long.  Commit to doing this 1-2 times per month for each employee and when review time rolls around you’ll have a robust portfolio of specific examples (this is essential) to draw upon.

Gather input prior to writing the review.

Employee performance impacts many key stakeholders. As appropriate draw on those who work with the employee and incorporate their feedback and experiences into the review. Provide a copy of the review template to key stakeholders or simply email them a few questions. The more specific your questions, the higher the quality of responses.  If you generally ask for feedback “on Mary’s performance this year” you will likely receive vague answers at best.  However asking for “feedback and specific examples on Mary’s initiative, customer service, and ability to work independently” creates a more effective framework for both the author and the commenter to use.

Don’t forget about the employee being reviewed.  Give them an opportunity to complete a self-review. It’s a powerful way to gain insight into what the employee sees as his/her contributions, accomplishments, and areas for growth. Review this document before writing the review to gauge how your perceptions of performance align (or don’t) with the employee’s.

No surprises.

If you have done your job as a supervisor nothing in the annual review will be a surprise to the employee. This means that the annual performance review is not the place for you to reveal a concern about performance for the first time. Remember, you are recapping the year that was. If you have not addressed a performance concern with an employee prior to the review it’s not fair to them that it suddenly shows up in a formal review document where it resides for all time. Performance concerns mentioned in the review should be limited to A) issues previously discussed that still need attention or B) examples of the employee responding to feedback and correcting performance issues.  If a new concern springs up around review time you can discuss it verbally at the review meeting without including it in the formal document.

Write about objective behaviors not subjective interpretations of behavior.

Mary recently finished her first year as a front-desk attendant at a thriving dental practice. Among her many duties was the greeting and registration of patients upon arrival. At her annual review meeting her boss went over what she wrote in Mary’s annual review:

Mary gets along well with everyone in the office. She’s a quick study and works independently. She should work on being friendlier to patients when they arrive as she doesn’t always project a warm or approachable demeanor behind the front desk.

While Mary’s boss felt that she had communicated specific areas for improvement for Mary going forward, the truth is that she didn’t give Mary a single new behavior to incorporate.  Everything stated by Mary’s boss is a subjective interpretation of her behavior. Words like friendly, warm, or approachable are descriptors or adjectives- words used to describe behavior- not behaviors themselves. Phrases like “a quick study” and “gets along well” are subjective as well and too vague mean anything.

Behaviors are observable and documentable.  A behavior is something that you can watch someone do.  When we use general descriptors they are subjective interpretations- judgments- of behavior that have been run through someone’s perception. This kind of language results in the employee experiencing a character judgment from the supervisor. This often causes misunderstandings, miscommunication, and conflict when reviewing feedback with an employee. Mary’s boss could have tried something like this instead:

Upon hire Mary spent time getting to know everyone in the office and specifically asked them how her job impacts theirs. She learned patient intake procedures within weeks of starting and her work is error-free. Mary needs to make eye contact with patients more frequently by turning away from the computer when patients arrive. She should direct an obvious smile at every person that walks through the front door and should always ask “What questions can I answer for you?” at the end of intake conversations.

This language equips Mary with specific behaviors to incorporate. The feedback from her boss is action-oriented and objective. It can be measured and observed. Of all the suggestions here, this is the one most managers struggle with. Master this approach and you’ll never agonize over another review again.

Use proper grammar and full sentences

It’s a formal, professional document, not a text message or an email. Follow the rules you learned early in life related to punctuation, capitalization, and sentence structure. It matters.

Remember, the annual performance review is not a cataloging of mistakes nor is it a get-it-done task. It’s one of the most important events in the annual life cycle of each employee. In most organizations it becomes a permanent part of the employee file. Never forget that this document has TWO names on it…the employee’s and yours. It is a reflection of your commitment to developing others, your skill as a communicator, and your attention to detail. Investing in the creation of a thorough, well-written document, that accurately rates and summarizes performance will produce benefits for you and your employee all year long.


5 thoughts on “How to Write Performance Reviews That Get Results

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