Take the dread out of performance reviews

Although HR professionals, people managers, and employees often face annual performance reviews with feelings of dread, that doesn’t have to be the case, experts say.

Improving the process for everyone “can only be done through better education of both parties focused on creating a safe and productive environment for the performance review conversation,” according to Brian Poggi, author of I Am Not Average: How to Succeed in Your Performance Review (CreateSpace, 2011). 

Lay the groundwork

Executive support, timely evaluations, periodic reviews throughout the year and a forward-looking approach are keys to successful reviews, experts say.

A leader needs to “insist, through words and actions,” that the process is crucial to the firm’s and employee’s success, according to Greg Szymanski, SPHR, HR director for Seattle-based real estate development firm Geonerco Management.

HR should ensure that managers conduct reviews in a timely manner, since those that are delayed send a message that managers don’t take the process seriously, Szymanski explained in an e-mail interview. Managers should also hold performance-related meetings throughout the year -- with the review document present -- to discuss goals and metrics.

“No one likes surprises,” Szymanski wrote.

John M. Baker, an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based consultant and author of The Asking Formula (Wonsockon Press, 2012), learned this lesson the hard way while evaluating an employee who presented a glowing self-appraisal. Baker, a newly minted American Express manager at the time, said he felt the employee was “a borderline performance issue” and realized quickly that he had not provided timely feedback.

“You get into contention and confrontation, and that’s unforgivable,” Baker said. “It’s a crushing blow to trust and it sets you back in terms of productivity.”

Reviews should also provide a roadmap for the future. Reviews focused only on what the employee has done wrong can end only badly, according to Szymanski. He recommends spending 20 percent of the time discussing past performance and 80 percent on future expectations and organizational needs.

Poggi, who is president of sales and marketing, Americas, for D&M Group, a Mahwah, N.J.-based consumer electronics firm, said many reviews fail because of lack of preparation, resulting in a lack of recognition for stand-out contributions and failure to communicate development issues.

“Typically both parties are not prepared,” Poggi wrote. “Employee motivation suffers, career advancement slows, and an opportunity for the manager to be more invested in the employee is lost.”

Steps employees can take

To make the most of the process, Poggi said managers should encourage employees to:

Prepare: List accomplishments and highlight how performance stacks up to written objectives. Make a list of key points and bring a copy for the supervisor. Include objectives for the next review.

Ask for more responsibility: Make a list of ways they can contribute beyond current responsibilities, such as asking to lead initiatives/projects and suggesting ways the department can be more effective.

Be specific about where they want to go: Be prepared to describe their next career move and provide a timetable for getting there.

Best practices for reviews

Stephen Balzac, president of 7 Steps Ahead, a Stow, Mass.-based organizational development consulting firm and author of The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development (McGraw-Hill, 2010), said reviews should:

Define clear, measurable goals ahead of time. As a software engineer at a large technology firm, Balzac was asked to design an interface for the company’s software, only to be told later that it didn’t look good visually. “What it boiled down to was style,” Balzac recalled. “I favored a fairly spartan interface, while my manager wanted a lot more eye candy.” The problem wasn’t that one was better than the other. The problem was that “it was never defined ahead of time,” he said.

Give the employee options for the review time and day. Doing so makes them “a partner rather than a passive subject,” Balzac told SHRM Online.

Provide feedback on things the employee can change, rather than on personality traits.

When giving negative feedback, avoid judgments and focus on specific incidents. For example, say “In the meeting last week I was very concerned that you treated every objection as a fight,” Balzac explained.

Pitfalls to avoid

Dan Dugan, SPHR, regional HR manager for Service Corporation International in Houston, said managers should avoid:

Personal relationships that influence the review:  A manager who plays golf with an associate should make sure the activity doesn’t influence her evaluations.

Feedback that is vague: In a review, Dugan’s manager once told him he didn’t have enough “zip.” He asked what that meant and the manager confessed that she didn’t know, but that her manager had passed along that feedback. The employee needs to know exactly what behavior needs to change, he explained.

Weighting recent performance or one project too heavily: Managers should take notes throughout the year about employee performance to ensure the review reflects results from the entire period.

Holding performance reviews and pay increase conversations at the same time: “The employee will just hear white noise until the end of their review,” Dugan told SHRM Online.

Using the process as a motivational tool: Dugan said recently, a client gave an employee a below-average rating and above-average merit increase. “When I called him on the contradiction, he said, ‘I think she’ll contribute a lot in the future,’” Dugan recalled.

Rating everyone above average: Some managers are uncomfortable providing constructive criticism. In such cases, “HR can help to role play with them and relieve their anxiety about providing the feedback. HR can encourage them to do it on a regular basis,” Dugan said.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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