Writing a performance review: What to include and how to boost effectiveness

Manager writing a performance review

While performance reviews may have a bad rap, they play a critical role to aligning employee goals with your organization’s objectives as well as improving employee engagement. But I'm sure you've all heard that before, so I'm going to give you a good reason why to start.

The thing to remember when you face down the inevitable stress of performance review season is your people do actually find them useful – in fact, a study done by HR.com found that 64 percent of employees said reviews give them helpful feedback and 45 percent said reviews provide them with good face time with their managers.

The issue, however, is that according to SHRM the overwhelming majority of managers feel unprepared to deliver effective performance reviews. So it's important for HR teams to prep and train your managers to write performance reviews. That preparation will be mission-critical to ensuring that reviews are effective and meaningful.

So how do you actually assist managers in writing performance reviews? Here are three simple questions to answer:

What's required when writing performance reviews?

While there are few legal requirements around what is included in a performance review, the content needs to be legally defensible. This means that managers conducting performance reviews should keep these principles in mind:

  1. Use specific examples: When writing performance reviews, vague phrases such as “you’re doing good work” and “keep it up” really don’t add value to any conversation and don’t give employees specific feedback. It’s critical to point to specific examples of activities or behavior in order to effectively communicate to the employee what “good” looks like (or conversely, what “needs improvement” looks like). Also, using concrete examples provides solid documentation should your organization need to use the performance review when making promotion and termination decisions.
  2. Connect performance to business impact: When employees understand their role’s impact on the business, they’re more likely to be more engaged and have higher performance, but according to a recent Robert Half study over half of employees do not understand the impact of their role on their organization. When providing examples in a review or summarizing an employee’s performance, it is important to outline how their work adds value to the organization. For example, if an employee provided exceptional customer service that resulted in higher than normal customer retention, you could connect that to the increase in revenue retention for your organization.
  3. Include competencies: While performance goals measure “what” your people should accomplish, competencies (i.e. collaboration, effective communication, adaptability, etc.) measure “how” they accomplish them. Typically, organizations can have a set of competencies for their organization and/or have competencies based on the employee’s role. Reviewing an employee’s performance as it relates to competencies can identify behaviors or habits that can help them become more effective in their role.

How do you give feedback on performance?

Providing employees with feedback (both positive and constructive) is a key tenet of a performance review and can offer employees valuable information that can have a profound impact on their career. However, when delivered poorly, feedback can have a detrimental impact on their engagement and potentially their likelihood of staying with your organization, so it's important for managers to provide feedback effectively.

Here are a few tips for effectively delivering feedback HR can pass on to managers:

  1. Focus on a few specific examples: While documentation of performance should ideally take place throughout the year, a performance review should focus on a few key and specific examples of great performance or areas for improvement. This makes it easier for the employees to understand while not overwhelming them with too many examples.
  2. Separate the person from the action: When providing feedback, especially constructive feedback, how you describe what needs improvement is very important to ensuring an employee doesn’t feel personally attacked. You can do this be focusing on the action that needs improvement vs. on the person who needs improvement. For instance, if an employee missed an opportunity to prevent a mistake, feedback should read like “in this [specific instance], you could have shown more initiative by doing [this] which would have prevented [specific mistake]” vs. saying "you were not proactive in this [specific instance]”. The latter example could make an employee feel personally attacked by describing them as a “not proactive” person.
  3. Focus on development: Another important piece of providing critical feedback is focusing on how an employee can improve their skills. By highlighting areas for development, managers can shift the conversation to focus on the opportunity to improve. For employees, this approach can signal that their manager or organization is willing to invest time or resources to help them become more successful in their role – which can help keep them engaged in their work.

What are optional additions when writing a performance review?

The typical performance review covers employee goals and sometimes competencies, but increasingly, organizations are looking for additional info and data points to provide managers to help better inform their reviews. Some optional things you could encourage managers to include in a review are:

  • Employee self-assessments: Providing employees with the opportunity to do a self-assessment of their performance can provide managers with helpful insights into how their employees view their own skills and areas for improvement.
  • Peer feedback: Gathering feedback from an employee’s peers can be very helpful for managers to get a full view of employee performance, especially as it relates to competencies. However, it's important for HR or managers to review all peer feedback and reword as necessary before presenting to an employee to ensure that it effectively communicates the feedback without disengaging the employee or identifying the feedback provider.
  • Development plan: After a performance review has been conducted, your managers may identify areas for development for their people. Including a formal development plan can help keep employees (and managers) accountable for their development over the next year. This could take the form of a simple list of courses, potential projects or assignments, or conferences that an employee participates in or leads.

Conclusion: These performance steps may seem simple, but they're strategic

Performance reviews might not be your managers' favorite activity, but they matter to employees perhaps now more than ever. They're also critical to you as an HR professional in terms of building your own strategic impact.

A key part of building an effective HR-business partnership is proving the impact your people initiatives, processes, and activities have on achieving business goals. Digging into your HR technology to show performance trends and all the goals different departments have accomplished can be a great way to do this, but in order for that data to have the strategic impact you want your managers have to be aligned with you on what information the include in performance reviews and how they conduct them. If you'd like to see more about where you should focus to build powerful HR-business partnerships, check out our recent research with HCI. It'll give you a great head start.

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