Effective Performance Reviews

It's that time of year again. You've got to add performance reviews to your already overloaded schedule. Even the best managers find it hard to break from their routines to review the effectiveness of their staff in meeting goals and priorities. The review process, however, is a powerful tool that can be tied directly to the department's overall productivity and success, serving to align staff with the organization's priorities and expectations.

Performance reviews are designed to both evaluate general performance and measure progress around specific goals. When well-structured, performance reviews offer an opportunity to acknowledge the work of staff, address areas in need of improvement, and identify professional development and training that will further support the staff members' career growth.

Effective managers address staff performance throughout the year, providing positive acknowledgment and necessary coaching and feedback to address problematic areas or issues. The formal performance review, then, should contain few, if any, surprises. "The annual review should not be the annual dump of the good, the bad and the ugly on the employee," says Molly Ambrose, a director of human resources. "So many managers, being conflict-averse, do not address issues as they arise, nor do they acknowledge good work as it happens."

The review should serve as a point of reference to both look back in evaluation and ahead in anticipation. Performance discussions hold great importance for staff and are generally tied to salary increases and overall compensation. Managers can maximize the effectiveness of their reviews by establishing a setting that encourages open communication. The following simple, but often overlooked, steps help to create a positive climate for the discussion:

  • Schedule the meeting in advance.
  • Choose a private setting, free from phone or in-person interruptions.
  • Set aside an adequate amount of time for an unhurried discussion.
  • Prepare ahead for the meeting. Review the staff member's goals and record significant points to be discussed. Ask your employee to come prepared to discuss his assessment of key accomplishments as well as areas in need of support or improvement.

Once you've set the context for a successful discussion, focus on the following guidelines to ensure a comprehensive review that allows for two-way communication:

  • Begin with an evaluation of primary-position responsibilities. To what extent were these areas of responsibility performed well? In what areas has performance fallen short of expectations? Whenever possible, cite examples and note key demonstrations of both competencies and areas in need of improvement, or developmental areas.
  • Review each goal set for the performance period. To what degree were the expected results achieved? What contributed to the staff member's ability to achieve the goal and produce the desired outcomes? What hindered the goal from being met? What steps can be taken to remove any barriers that interfered with success?
  • Approach the review with an open mind, prepared to adjust or revise based on the conversation. Use the discussion points you have prepared as guidelines for the discussion, allowing the employee to voice his opinion, in agreement or disagreement.
  • Keep feedback about developmental areas constructive. Be specific and objective. Use facts to support your feedback, rather than generalizations about the staff member's character or attitude. When possible, offer support and training to correct these problem areas.
  • Focus on professional development. Performance reviews are an excellent time to discuss opportunities for your staff member's growth in his current position.
  • Look ahead, developing goals for the next performance period. Make these goals measurable and designate timelines for each.

Always summarize your review and write down new goals for the year ahead that the discussion has generated. While many organizations provide a template for this, those without one can write up salient aspects of the review in memo form to be distributed by both parties. This document then serves as a reference for the next review cycle.

Pulling back from the daily demands in order to review and assess performance allows managers to stay in touch with what's important to their organizations, focus their departments and increase the loyalty of those who report to them.