Organizational Wellness

Performance Reviews: How to Keep Employee Evaluations from Becoming a Pain in the Assessment

Mar 8, 2023
Last Updated Jul 19, 2024

Performance review.

Oooh. You’re not the only one who gets nervous hearing that term.

Consider the fact that 22% of employees born after 1980 have called in sick rather than face a performance review. And Millennials aren’t the only ones who dread evaluation time: Mercer reports that only 2% of companies think their approach to performance management delivers exceptional value. And SHRM doesn’t mince words when insisting that a “traditional performance review [is] painful and ineffective for both managers and employees.” (They’re slightly more data-focused in reporting that 95% of managers are dissatisfied with formal performance reviews, and 90% of HR professionals think appraisals are inaccurate).

So. Why do we keep doing them? 

The performance evaluation is a well-established process. XpertHR reports that 63% of employers conduct yearly performance reviews, while 18% also participate in mid-year review sessions. Why? Because employees need feedback to know how they’re doing and where they should improve. Twenty-four percent of workers would consider quitting if their managers were to provide inadequate performance feedback. 

In other words, employees not only benefit from feedback, but they also expect it. They depend on it. And if you don’t give it to them, they’ll find employers who are more invested in their success. 

Correctly applied, employee evaluation meetings can provide clear insight and valuable observations into an employee’s strengths, weaknesses, and potential. 

Of course, the operative term here is “correctly applied.” 

How can you ensure that your employee review sessions are positive and productive experiences for everyone involved? We’ve got some ideas. But first, let’s define what a performance review actually is.

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What Is a Performance Review?

A performance review can take many different forms, so defining it can get a little generic. A nice, inclusive definition is that a performance review is essentially a ‘check-in’ or an ‘assessment’ of the quality, quantity, and efficiency of work being performed by an individual within the company. Certain variations of performance reviews are little more than friendly visits between managers and employees to see how everyone is doing. Others are much more structured and formal. 

Also called ‘employee performance reviews,’ ‘performance appraisals,’ or ‘performance evaluations,’ these assessments can be performed as regularly or as irregularly as a company wants.  

Why Are Performance Reviews Important?

Wait, are they important? Well, yes — employee performance reviews offer essential feedback and help employees achieve more. They also establish accountability, and Gartner reports that companies that eliminate reviews see a 4%–6% drop in employee performance. And even though they may not always look forward to them, employees recognize the need for ongoing evaluation, with 96% of employees saying that receiving regular feedback is a positive thing.

Simply put, coming together to touch base and make sure that everyone is on the same page is an essential element of employee relations. Effective performance review strategies offer a reliable solution for identifying and correcting problematic or inefficient employee behavior early on (hopefully before it leads to a loss in revenue, customers, or your workforce). Additionally, performance reviews empower companies with closer tracking of high performers for the purpose of rewards and recognition. Finally, regular reviews provide essential course correction for employee career paths.

It’s just that too many companies get the idea that performance reviews are good, and then they just sort of run with it without taking much consideration into what makes them good. But performance reviews need to be about more than just pointing out mistakes or giving high fives — they need to be focused on accomplishing personal growth.

What Should a Performance Review Include? 

Yes! Personal growth! Now we’re getting somewhere. But this emphasis on ‘personal’ isn’t to say that performance reviews should eschew data and performance metrics. Quite the contrary — if you don’t measure something, you’re unlikely to improve it. It’s just that comparing numbers doesn’t fully capture what a performance review can accomplish. Instead of simply pointing at revenue or the number of completed projects and making a judgment, try breaking the review down into essential competencies, such as:

  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Creativity/Innovation
  • Interpersonal relationships 
  • Job Knowledge
  • Problem-solving
  • Reliability
  • Work Quality

The specific skills and other elements you build your performance review around will naturally be unique to your business and the employee’s role and responsibilities — be sure to take into account any unique skills or proficiencies that may be required. Once you have a full list of performance-relevant competencies, it’s time to consider how much each one should be weighted. Communication matters in every role, for example, but will likely be more a foundational competency area for an outbound sales representative at a SAAS company than a software engineer at the same organization. If you want to add comparable data to this step, you can add a value to each skill so that a full point total can be tallied against an average or goal. 

This process best supports employee development when you involve the employee in the process. Before the first review ever takes place, work with your staff to establish which performance criteria are worth evaluating for their position, what their personal goals are, how those aims relate to established metrics, and what steps can be taken (on both sides of the review table) to support the employee in meeting these goals. 

Finally, make sure that the employee is involved in the post-assessment process. After you’ve completed the performance review and have tabulated the scores, reach out to the employee to discuss your findings. This meeting should be a discussion where you and the employee work together to uncover valuable performance insights, so make sure that there is enough time available for the employee to ask any questions they may have or offer their own suggestions or feedback. A written copy of your findings can help keep the meeting on track.

The main point here is that the purpose of the performance review shouldn’t be to roll out a list of charges against the employee, or even shower them with praise for a job well done. It’s to see where they are on their employee journey, where they want to be, and what goals can help them get there.

Performance Review Types

Now that we have a clearer idea of what kinds of things to evaluate, it might be a good idea to briefly touch on just how regularly you should be conducting these reviews. “But wait,” you may be saying, “You said that employee assessments could be scheduled out as often or as seldom as a company wants.”

And this is true! But different review schedules are best suited to different project styles, which is why we’re going to take a step back for a second to look at various review tempos and what they can offer different organizations:

  • Weekly: Good for tracking the movement of Agile projects or briefly touching base with employees that may need some additional support.
  • Monthly: Well suited to short-term contract workers, freelance employees, or new hires during the onboarding process.
  • Quarterly: Useful for companies that want to make a clearer connection between employee performance and quarterly company objectives. These can also include more-regular weekly or monthly reviews.
  • Mid-Yearly: Valuable for realigning employee and company goals during potentially-slower summer months.
  • Annually: Possibly the most traditional form of employee review, the annual review is nevertheless falling into disuse in many industries as it must take into account too great of a time span and too much employee information. Those organizations that continue to practice annual reviews often use them more as an accumulative evaluation supported by more consistent quarterly or monthly evaluations. 

Performance Review Model Examples

Regardless of how regularly you decide to have them, your performance reviews will need structure to be effective. Here are several examples of how you can organize your review questions with employee growth in mind:

Collaboration

  • Does the employee collaborate well with team members?
  • Does the employee value and respect differences among their team members?
  • Is the employee’s team feedback constructive and relevant?

Communication

  • Does the employee listen actively?
  • Is the employee’s communication clear and concise?
  • Does the employee respond promptly to queries or requests?

Creativity/Innovation

  • Does the employee look for opportunities to create extra value in their work?
  • Is the employee adaptable in how they approach problems?
  • Is the employee capable of clearly identifying problems and their root causes?

Interpersonal relationships

  • Is the employee professional in how they disagree and are they willing to consider other viewpoints objectively?
  • Does the employee manage their emotions in a healthy and professional way?
  • Does the employee use positive words and phrases? 

Job Knowledge

  • Does the employee possess the skills and training necessary to perform their functions well?
  • Is the employee capable of addressing new or unexpected problems related to their role?
  • Does the employee pursue additional educational opportunities relevant to their role?

Reliability

  • Does the employee accomplish tasks well and on time without needing constant management?
  • Is the employee available during work hours?
  • Does the employee keep their commitments?

As we mentioned above, the final form your performance review takes will depend heavily on your business’ organizational structure, work model, employee types, etc., etc., etc., (etc.). The important thing to remember here is that every question is an opportunity to identify possible strengths or weaknesses, and then tie those back to your employee’s goals. Again, this shouldn’t feel like a trial with HR or management on one side and the employee on the other. It should be a collaborative effort where everyone involved is working towards the same objectives.

How to Prepare for a Performance Review  

You know how often you want to hold reviews. You know what questions to ask. Are you ready to go? 

No, not quite yet. 

There’s a fair bit of preparation you’ll want to take care of before you look your reviewee in the eyes and start critiquing their work. Here are five behind-the-scenes steps that will help your review be as smooth and productive as possible:

  1. Tell Employees What to Expect

Even the best employees may fear the worst if they don’t have any idea of what their review is going to look like. But there’s no reason why the process should be shrouded in mystery. Be open with your people and tell them exactly what you want to discuss. What areas will you be covering? What questions will you ask? If the employee has a clear picture of what to expect, they’ll be better prepared to get more out of the review.

  1. Set Aside Enough Time

When you take the time to meet with employees individually to assess their work, you’re letting them know that they matter and that they are valuable members of the company… unless you cut the meeting short to take a call. Don’t let distractions or other commitments trivialize the importance of the performance review — clear your schedule so you can give the review your full attention. 

  1. Review Previous Evaluations

A review should be just that: a review. In preparation for meeting with the employee, reacquaint yourself with their previous performance evaluations. What kinds of issues did you discuss? What did you or the employee say you’d follow up on? Has performance improved in specific areas between then and now? If not, what might be getting in the way?

  1. Identify Possible Solutions

What do you call a performance review that identifies weaknesses without offering solutions? Nitpicking, which is never growth-oriented. Identifying strengths and weaknesses is only a small part of the equation, which is why it’s up to you to review the numbers beforehand and come up with possible strategies to help your employee improve. What support can you offer? Are there areas that may require special training or increased focus? Have possible solutions ready before you sit down with your employee, and you won’t have to sit through the uncomfortable silence of both of you silently contemplating how best to move forward. 

  1. Determine How to Reward Top Performers

Hey now, employee reviews aren’t all disappointment and damage control – chances are a fair number of your employees will strut through those doors with full confidence. For top performers, an employee review is a much-deserved confirmation of a job well done. So, how should you celebrate it? Consider an employee recognition program! Hold up your best employees as the standard, and others will be more motivated to emulate their success.

Best Practices for Conducting a Performance Review

Performance reviews are valuable opportunities for employees and managers to improve how they collaborate and get a better handle on important goals. But let’s not kid ourselves: They can also be tough. Any criticisms (even constructive critiques) create the potential for conflict. Some employees may become defensive. Others might attempt to pass the buck or blame coworkers or management. And some may just sit through the entire process without bothering to contribute or taking anything to heart. 

Is there a way to ensure that every employee review is a completely positive experience? 

Nope! 

Are there best practices you can apply to promote a positive environment and an atmosphere of collaboration and growth?

Yes!

Here are several tips to give your performance review the best possible chance of success:

Explain the Importance of the Review

Begin your review by sharing what you hope to accomplish and why this is worth dedicating company time towards. Better yet, share these thoughts with the employee before the review starts so that they can have enough time to prepare.

Stick with the Facts

It’s hard to defend against (or live up to) gossip, rumor, and hearsay. Evaluate your employees using quantifiable metrics, and leave out what others may or may not be saying. 

Be Specific

As you make observations about the employee’s performance, be clear and direct. The employee needs to understand exactly where they stand and what they should be doing to improve. If you speak in vague terms or unclear references, they will likely leave the office confused and demotivated.

Give the Employee Time to Think and Respond

Want a discussion? Then you’re going to need to give your employees some of the spotlight. Allow enough time during the review for employees to metabolize main points, consider their responses, and express their thoughts. Otherwise, the entire process could just be a memo. 

Compare Performance to Established Goals, Not Other Employees

Unless you’re intentionally trying to create competition and resentment among your teams (note: don’t do that), the last thing you should do in a review is compare one employee’s performance against another’s. Your employees should be trying to beat their goals, not their teammates.   

Don’t Forget to Highlight the Positive

Identifying what an employee is doing right (and how they can keep doing it) is just as beneficial as calling out what they’re doing wrong. Don’t let the opportunity go to waste.

Encouraging Growth

For too many employees (and certainly some managers and HR professionals), the term employee review is tainted with apprehension. But it shouldn’t be. Performance reviews are your chance to connect with your employees and better align day-to-day performance with short- and long-term objectives — provided you do it right. So, take the time to plan for performance reviews and make sure you approach each one with the care and attention it deserves. 

After all, your employee’s personal growth and success is a victory for your entire organization.

Interested in supporting your employees’ personal growth in their work and beyond? Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist today!

Company healthcare costs drop by up to 35% with Wellhub! (* Based on proprietary research comparing healthcare costs of active Wellhub users to non-users.) Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist to see how we can help reduce your healthcare spending!

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Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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