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6 Tips for Writing an Effective Performance Review

image for Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock
Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

A performance review is incredibly valuable for both employee and employer to learn more about what is and isn't working, identifying areas for growth and planning for the future.

A strong review can be difficult to write, however, especially for managers, who are often not given enough guidance on what an effective and comprehensive review looks like. We spoke to business and HR professionals to find out how managers can write great performance reviews that support their employees.

While performance reviews are typically scheduled to happen once or twice a year, feedback should not be limited to that short period of time. You should be offering consistent assessments throughout the year so there aren't any surprises.

"Don't catch your people off guard in a performance review," said Erika Rasure, assistant professor of business and financial services at Maryville University. "This should not be the first time that they are hearing from you that they are not performing as expected. Be clear in writing [and] sending calendar invites and setting expectations and the tone for the meetings."

You should also make sure to take constant notes on employee performance, especially when there are no performance reviews on the horizon.

"Employees deserve a robust assessment of their work for the entire period being covered," said Gary Schneeberger, founder and president of ROAR. "Far too many performance reviews are based only on what the manager can remember from the last few weeks before the evaluations are due to HR. Managers have to be intentional about taking and filing notes."

Additionally, you might change your strategy if you're only addressing issues or employees who aren't performing as well as others. You don't want to neglect workers just because they don't need as much guidance. In fact, if you don't express your gratitude, they might lose passion or motivation.

"Highly valuable employees who do their job and do it well are often not the priority of concern in performance review cycles, resulting in missed opportunities to communicate how much the organization values the drive and the results of the top performers," said Rasure. "An unexpected 'keep up the great work' email, a quick phone call or text sends a consistent signal to your employee that you are paying attention and value what they do."

No worker is perfect, and there will always be room for improvement. Decide what is worth addressing and don't hesitate in doing so. If there is an issue that you know is affecting you and your team, you shouldn't avoid it. Tiptoeing around the subject won't get you anywhere.

James R. Bailey, professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business, said to be honest (but not brutally) with workers. Deliver feedback in a way that you would want to receive it if you were the employee. The discussion is crucial and unavoidable, so choose an appropriate approach and stick with it.

"If someone is a poor performer and you don't squarely address it, know that everyone else in the office knows that the person is a poor performer, and [employees] will brand you as weak or cowardly for not addressing the situation," Bailey said.

Managers should also demonstrate and expect clarity, said Leon Rbibo, president of Laguna Pearl. "There needs to be crystal-clear clarity on both sides of the table, both in what the manager expects from the employee moving forward and in what the employee needs from the manager."

Without clarity, Rbibo said, nothing you do discuss during the evaluation will help the situation, and you'll find yourself discussing the same topics at the next performance review. So be clear, be honest, and remember that nothing will change if it is not addressed.

The written review should be a brief but direct overview of discussion points, making for a more nuanced face-to-face conversation. Schedule a meeting in a coffee shop or out-of-office location to provide a comfortable atmosphere. If you're reviewing remote workers, schedule a video chat so you're still having a live conversation. This approach leaves room for discussion and feedback on their end and prevents any miscommunications.

"The only way to deliver performance reviews is face-to-face, with ample time to present and process, listen and respond," said Bailey. "It's just too important to relegate to email or telephone. Doing so would send a signal that you didn't care enough about the subject to even take the time to meet."

After outlining any shortcomings or mistakes, take the time to discuss resolutions to those problems, and push employees to comment on the issues you raised.

When discussing areas for improvement or things an employee has done well, make sure you have clear examples to reference (this is where having notes over a long period of time comes in handy).

"If you've got nothing to refer to, then you're speaking anecdotally," said Rbibo. "This prevents clarity and understanding. If an employee is falling behind in certain key performance areas, point to one or two specific examples and address how you'd like those handled differently in the future."

Having examples will prove to the employee that you are paying attention to them as well as add credit to your expectations.

Don't leave the review without mutual understanding and respect, and don't let any employee feel like they're in the dark going forward.

"Use the review process as an opportunity to set attainable goals specific to addressing the expectations the employee isn't meeting but which also makes the employee feel like they have a clear, reasonable plan of action that can get them back on track," said Rasure.

Encouraging your employees and expressing your appreciation gives an added boost to a primarily good review, or lifts your employee's spirits after a somewhat negative evaluation. Positive reinforcement and constructive feedback can go a long way in giving workers the confidence and drive they need to perform even better.

Pay close attention to how you phrase your evaluations. Here are five words and expressions that will help you effectively highlight an employee's contributions, based on James E. Neal Jr.'s book Effective Phrases for Performance Appraisals (Neal Publications, 2009).

  • Achievement: Incorporate this into a phrase, such as "achieves optimal levels of performance with/for ... "
  • Communication skills: Phrases like "effectively communicates expectations" or "excels in facilitating group discussions" go a long way with an employee.
  • Creativity: Appreciating employees' creative sides can make for happier, more motivated staff. In a performance evaluation, try "seeks creative alternatives," followed by specific examples and results.
  • Improvement: Employees like hearing that they are improving and that it's being noticed. "Continues to grow and improve" and "is continuously planning for improvement" are two constructive phrases to use in a performance review.
  • Management ability: Leadership skills and the ability to manage others is key to employee success. Incorporating phrases such as "provides support during periods of organizational change" can carry a lot of weight with your employee.

Richard Grote, author of How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011), said that instead of using terms such as "good" or "excellent" in a review, employers should opt for more measurement-oriented language. In an interview with Hcareers.com, Grote noted that action words like "excels," "exhibits," "demonstrates," "grasps," "generates," "manages," "possesses," "communicates," "monitors," "directs" and "achieves" are more meaningful.

Schneeberger remembered an intern who refused to accept her review because the ratings were not all "exceeds standards."

"Her reason for the protest was that she tried really hard," he said.

Knowing her boyfriend was a basketball player, Schneeberger then asked the intern if his working hard at every practice automatically meant he should start, and she was quiet. "I pointed out that my job was the same as his coach – to help her get better so she could figuratively get off the bench and into the game as she embarked on her career. I needed to teach her how to get better – and I couldn't do that if she was already perfect."

Sergei Brovkin, founder and principal of Collectiver, recalled a manager who held very informal, unhelpful evaluations. "[He] would do it once a year, during his lunch, while working on emails," he said. "That was one of the reasons I left the company."

Mike Cox, president of Cox Innovations, spoke of a time when he was serving as an HR leader and had a colleague come to him with the decision to terminate an employee. Upon reviewing the employee's performance evaluations, Cox could not see any evidence of poor performance or mistakes.

"I was told that the employee was performing poorly at the time of the review but was considered very important to an ongoing project, so [they were given] an inaccurately positive review to avoid demotivating a critical period in the project."

Cox advised against terminating the employee until a fair evaluation was given, but the employee was terminated anyway and wound up suing for wrongful termination, leading to a costly settlement for the business.

Additional reporting by Sammi Caramela and Jennifer Post. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Kiely Kuligowski

Kiely is a staff writer based in New York City. She worked as a marketing copywriter after graduating with her bachelor’s in English from Miami University (OH) and is now embracing her hipster side as a new resident of Brooklyn. You can reach her on Twitter or by email.