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Performance Reviews 101: Everything You Need to Know

Performance reviews are tough for everyone. Employees don’t look forward to receiving long talks filled with reproach, and managers don’t look forward to giving them. Even when all news is good news, though, the stress of preparing for and arranging so many performance reviews still wears managers and HR teams out.

There’s not just “a better way” to run your performance reviews – there are SO MANY better ways. The framework you use for reviews, the cadence at which you set them, and the way you give feedback to your team can all use an overhaul. Even if you’re confident in your current methodology, you can try out some tweaks to truly perfect it.

We’re guessing you’re less than psyched about the way performance review season typically goes in your organization, which is why we’ve put together a compendium of everything you can do to transform your review method into something totally effective that you and your employees enjoy. Let’s take a look!

PART 1: When and Why

Not-so-Annual Reviews?

When someone says they’re entering their performance review cycle, you probably picture them going into it once a year. The further into the post-pandemic landscape we get, however, the more likely it is that’s not the case. Companies are beginning to ditch the annual mega-review format in favor of a more casual quarterly review cycle, as this WorldatWork survey reveals.

Now, that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the annual template – all the upcoming tips apply to any time frame. It’s also not to say everyone’s hopping on the trend, as Google themselves reverted to annual performance reviews after their teams became weary of their twice-a-year schedule.

The cadence of your meetings largely depends on the size of your team. As much as you might like to, holding meaningful quarterly reviews is unrealistic on a team of 50+ members. If you run a tight ship with only a handful of members, though, checking in with a performance review every quarter keeps them more invested and gives you an opportunity to help them make adjustments more often. 

Leave a Little Space

An optimal method of reviewing, especially for a hybrid workforce, is submitting the written review to the worker and following up with a one-on-one discussion. Laying out all your judgments for the first time in person is archaic and can leave employees unprepared to respond appropriately if they’re unhappy with the criticism you’re giving.

Some managers remedy this by separating the two – a little. They may email the review to the team member (or even physically hand it to them) and let them know the one-on-one will be later in the afternoon. This doesn’t necessarily erase their emotional reaction later on, and will probably distract them for the time in between. If you’re upset about something, and you have to deal with it in an hour, that’s all you’ll be thinking about for that hour.

The best way to separate the two performance reviews is by splitting them a day apart: the written version the day before the meeting. They may be displeased with it, but they won’t be caught off guard or emotional come the next day’s meeting, and they may even think it over and realize it’s a more accurate assessment than they believed at first.

Now, if you’re filling the review with high praise, the overnight buffer isn’t as essential. If you’re worried about how the person will respond to criticism, though, it’s smart to give them some time to process it.

Some leaders will actually have their employees do a self-evaluation the day before in order to get an idea of where they believe they are from a productivity standpoint. Whether the precursor to the meeting is an evaluation from you or themselves, leave space in between for everyone to think it over.

Part 2: Avoiding Biases

Refer to the data first

It’s tough to carry out a performance review without a bit of bias, whether based on personal experience with someone or just casual observations. Bias isn’t just limited to stereotypes, remember – it can be as simple as thinking someone’s lazy based on one or two anecdotes. 

The most objective way to evaluate your team is by using performance metrics. If their work is based around something measurable like subscriptions sold or clients acquired, focus on their numbers as stacked up against the average or against the goals that were set. 

Whatever your company uses as their most quantifiable metric to gauge successes over the past timespan, use it as the focal point of your meeting. There’s no room for biases when the only aspects of your discussion circle around facts.

You can also take this time to align your team with organizational goals, making sure they’re not only reaching their position’s expectations but are also aware of the expectations that exist for them as a contributor to the company. Don’t make the review as much about the person, but about their work – this way the evaluations can stay objective and efficient.

Finish off by setting some specific goals for the future that are also based on data, whether a 25% increase in production or an added project. You won’t have to worry about your personal opinions slipping in when you keep it quantitative instead of qualitative. 

Avoid gender and race biases

This one should be obvious, right? Yes, but it truly can’t be repeated enough: diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are crucial to creating a healthy workplace culture. Whether you realize it or not, subtle stereotypes can creep into even the most socially conscious company’s evaluations to create biased reviews.

For instance, a Stanford University research team conducted in-depth studies at three American companies to investigate differences between the ways performance reviews are managed between male and female staff members. The biases were quite interesting – men’s reviews focused more on their technical skills, while women’s prioritized their communication skills. Generally speaking, the subject of men’s meetings was usually their production, while women’s was usually their personality.

Racial bias can get even worse. Similar studies have found troubling statistics, such as one corporation’s tendency to be eight times less likely to commend people of color on their leadership skills and 1.5x more likely to bring up their faults. 

While less research has been done on LGBTQ+ bias in reviews, we know they face the same struggle. So, how can you fix it?

You can do your best to intentionally dodge any stereotyping thoughts, but a more consistent way to shed this kind of bias is to stick to a structure that focuses on facts. As we said before, thoroughly using examples of great and poor work keeps you accurate – but having a structure in and of itself works as well. When you have a front-to-back plan of what you’ll discuss, you won’t get off track, and the review doesn’t have a chance to get subjective.

Guard against implicit biases whenever you can and practice good DEI in your workplace.

Consistently log their progress

A little extra effort can go a long way. The most prevalent bias that isn’t based on personal relationships is recency bias: placing a higher value on actions done more recently. This could be because you’ve forgotten about older accomplishments, or just because you feel like the last couple weeks are the most important to address.

Taking a holistic view of someone’s development over a large span of time is the most accurate way to evaluate them, even if it doesn’t seem like it. You may have a pretty good memory, but the best way to get a complete overview is to take some notes during one-on-one meetings and log any particular achievements or issues.

Once the end of the year comes around, you’ll have a comprehensive list of aspects of their performance. Sounds perfect for a performance review, no?

Not only will recency bias be removed, but you’ll have a lot of objective information to put towards the meeting. Even if your employees don’t enjoy what they hear, they’ll respect the amount you remember. It demonstrates that you’ve been paying attention during their one-on-ones, and that objectivity is important for building trust.

Part 3: The Review

Avoid patterns

Naturally, when giving performance reviews to a team that works together and talks about their experiences, you would want to remain consistent from person to person. However, that can lead to an all-too-common trap –the “compliment sandwich”.

This is a method of feedback where you begin the discussion with some praise, include constructive criticism in the middle, and end it on a high note with more compliments. In practice, this works for some employees very well; many people are reliable workers with few areas to improve in.

The mistake is made when you get used to handing out compliment sandwiches and then apply the formula to everyone on your team.

If you have a couple of underperforming employees on your staff, you’ll end up reaching harder to find compliments and condensing your criticisms to the middle. Even if your criticisms were valid, they’ll likely leave under the impression that you see them as an average worker, and won’t make an effort to improve because they got a solid amount of praise.

At the same time, don’t be afraid to give your best performers a more glowing report. If you dig to find criticisms to complete the template, he or she could leave discouraged because their extra effort didn’t earn them a great review. You can, however, suggest ways to improve and take their success another level higher.

Dick Grote, author of How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals, notes, “Most people are good solid workers, so for the vast majority, you should concentrate exclusively on things the person has done well.”

A way to evaluate your staff consistently without falling into a template is by using Pixar’s “Yes, and” approach. With this strategy, criticism is “plussed” in order to be more constructive. Acknowledge what they’ve been doing poorly with a “Yes,” and offer a solution with an “and…”.

For instance, “Yes, you’ve lost a few clients in the past month, and this can be remedied by,” X, Y, and Z. It’s a reliable method of feedback that can even apply to your most productive employees, if you wanted to suggest something to take their efforts even further.

Don’t skew your reviews to fit a pattern, but tailor them to reflect on exactly how well the person is doing. They’ll leave with a better picture of their aptitude as a worker and will be enabled to either fix it or keep it up.

Get feedback from others around the person

You may find yourself giving a performance review to an employee who reports to multiple different supervisors, whether indirect managers, team leaders, or HR advisors. If you feel like you need a more holistic idea of this person’s productivity, it’s always a good idea to ask around and crowdsource feedback.

There’s a strategy for good 360° feedback. A team leader might tell you that this person missed a couple deadlines on a particular group assignment, and you might remember they also recently missed an important one for you. Now, you shouldn’t tell that employee, “So-and-so told me you were missing deadlines on that project.” This creates an air of mistrust, as the person now feels that their teammates are talking behind their back.

Instead, frame bad feedback you hear in a more general sense. They’re aware the criticism is true, but since it’s non-specific, they won’t get the impression that comments about them are circulating the office. Simply say something like, “You’ve been having trouble getting things in on time, and it shouldn’t continue. How can I help?”

If you ask around and their other teammates have good things to say about them, e.g., “I watched them put in a lot of extra effort to land three big clients in a week,” you can absolutely feel free to let them know you heard about it and commend them for it. They’ll leave feeling recognized and motivated to continue the extra effort, knowing you’ll probably hear about it.

Let them give you feedback too

Proceed with caution! This strategy isn’t necessarily for everyone. If you have a good deal of self-awareness regarding your reputation among your staff, you’ll be able to decide whether it’s a fit for you.

When an employee’s receiving a face-to-face performance review, they feel like they’re on the spot and that the power dynamic is more skewed than usual. As a manager, you don’t want that to be the case, but it seems unavoidable.

However, if you let them know that they’ll have an opportunity to give you feedback yourself, they’ll feel more comfortable and receptive to what you have to say. Sarah Franklin, co-founder of Blue Tree AI, advises, “An effective performance evaluation includes the employee evaluating me as well. I want to hear from my team what strengths they feel I have and in what areas they need more attention from me.

In fact, returns from such feedback are quantifiable; a Gallup study found that managers who received feedback on their strengths showed 8.9% greater profitability after the review.  

Now, you may have made some mistakes recently, or disgruntled a few employees, or simply felt that you didn’t complete many goals over the last year. This is okay – as long as you don’t believe their feedback will be overwhelmingly negative, it’s healthy to hear some mixed opinions. An important step to this is to make sure they don’t take the performance review as an opportunity to complain about you; remind them to be constructive.

You may be wondering to yourself what your team’s opinion of you is in the first place. If you’re not sure, it might be a sign of a different issue – you’re not keyed into your staff’s circle. When a workforce finds that their manager is unapproachable or distant, it creates a host of problems that belong in a different discussion.

If you feel like you have a decent rapport with your team, this is the perfect method to make your performance reviews a less intimidating experience. For more on performance management in general, go here! To go deeper and learn more about the differences between performance reviews and one-on-ones, check this article out! Check out our performance review template if you want a more consistent and effective strategy, and watch our webinar to learn how to improve your process overall.

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