Five Tips for Conducting Better Performance Reviews

If you’re a manager, don’t let conducting performance reviews cause you anxiety. Here are some pointers to make this task a positive experience for all.

February 14, 2011
Sponsored by Robert Half International

If you’re in a supervisory role, conducting performance reviews is probably on your to-do list for the year. Understandably, managers may feel some anxiety about the time it takes to prepare for and hold appraisal discussions and how they will fit the process into already-packed schedules. Still, these sessions are a valuable tool for strengthening bonds with top performers and getting underperforming employees back on track.

As many businesses continue to address rising workloads without significantly increasing headcount, it’s especially important that firms try to maximize every employee’s potential and intensify their efforts to retain their best people.

These pointers can help managers ensure that this periodic corporate ritual is a positive and productive experience for all:

  1. Ask for input. Employees often feel that they lack influence over their evaluation, and many fear being surprised by negative feedback. To make the process more of a cooperative undertaking — and also ease the burden on you as a manager have team members provide written input about their performance prior to your meeting. Mainly you want to know: Do employees believe performance goals were met? What were their key accomplishments? How can they improve performance?

    Feedback from employees can provide valuable insights into how they view their contributions and whether they have blind spots when it comes to performance issues. If there are significant discrepancies between your assessment and the employee’s, these are areas that can benefit from discussion. Asking for feedback on the front end also helps ensure that you’ve considered all relevant information, especially details that the employee believes are worth noting.
  2. Don’t rush evaluations. Fight the urge to delay or rush the process of completing evaluations. Everyone deserves a comprehensive and accurate review. Allocate adequate time to reflect on an individual’s strengths and weaknesses and factor in the employee’s input. As managers know, it’s easy to overlook an individual’s accomplishments made earlier in the review period. You can avoid this pitfall and make evaluations easier by creating an informal record of significant performance-related events as they occur, rather than trying to recall them months later. But keep in mind that the act of recording positive or negative notes shouldn’t be a substitute for giving employees periodic feedback on their performance during the year outside of the formal appraisal.
  3. Focus on specifics. Many managers dread delivering criticism because they don’t want to demoralize employees or hurt their feelings. But not being candid does a disservice to staff members by depriving them of honest feedback and a chance to improve their performance. When it’s necessary to highlight an employee’s shortcomings, use specific examples. For instance, rather than saying, “You seem to lack initiative lately,” cite specific examples to support your assessment, such as: “There’s been an increase in service-related complaints from your clients.” Also, avoid generalizing: “You never follow up with clients in a timely manner.” Keep the focus on factual details that can help employees improve specific aspects of their performance.
  4. Tailor feedback to the individual. Adapt your evaluation style to the personalities and feedback needs of individual staff members. For instance, highly confident top performers may not benefit much from simply having praise heaped on them. They may feel more motivated by being tasked with an important new assignment instead. On the other hand, solid but less confident staff members may be energized by praise and reassurance. This doesn’t mean that managers should avoid offering constructive criticism to more sensitive employees, but take care to balance negative feedback with positive comments.
  5. Seek solutions. Don’t forget that appraisals are intended to reinforce or correct performance. With this in mind, be receptive to doing whatever is necessary, within reason, to rectify a staff member’s performance problems. For instance, if a staff accountant acknowledges that he or she simply doesn’t mesh with a client and this creates problems working together, consider reassigning the individual. Or, if an employee is enthusiastic and loyal but lacks a key skill, offer mentoring or additional training to close performance gaps.

Finally, be sure to use the appraisal as an opportunity to really tap into the needs, concerns and aspirations of your direct reports, especially top performers, who may start to weigh other options as the economy improves. Take steps to retain these key staff members by reminding them how valued they are and discussing their career potential within your firm.

Although staff evaluations can sometimes seem like an extra administrative burden for managers, keep in mind that the amount of time and effort invested in the process can pay big dividends in the form of improved performance and better relationships with team members throughout the year.

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