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Delivering An Effective Performance Review Back to Course Index




For many employees, a face-to-face performance review is the most stressful work conversation they’ll have all year. For managers and supervisors, the discussion is just as tense. “What a performance appraisal requires is for one person to stand in judgment of another. Deep down, it’s uncomfortable,” says Dick Grote, author of How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals. Evaluating an employee’s job performance should consist of more than an annual chat, according to James Baron, the William S. Beinecke Professor of Management at Yale School of Management. Performance management is a process, he says. “Presumably, you’re giving a tremendous amount of real-time feedback, and your employees are people you know well. Hopefully, your relationship can survive candid feedback.”

The goal of the review is to give positive feedback on where the employee shines and offer suggestions on where the employee can improve.  Unfortunately, most tend only to take away the bad.  There are several strategies to help you make performance review season less nerve-racking and more productive.


Set Expectations Early And Track Throughout

The performance review doesn’t start with a sit-down across the desk from your employee on the first anniversary of their hire. You must be clear from the outset about how you’ll evaluate your employees. Everyone likes to have clear expectations.  Hold “performance planning” sessions with each of your direct reports at the beginning of the year, to discuss that person’s goals and your expectations. Giving clear expectations also gives you a better ability to hold people accountable. Listen carefully to your employees’ ambitions, as it will inform the way you assess their work.  Oftentimes managers are evaluating performance without necessarily knowing what that person’s career aspirations are. 

When important things happen regarding an employee’s performance throughout the year, you’ll want to take specific notes. Taking notes will help you accomplish several things.

It will make it clear that you’re paying attention during the entire year, not just during the months and weeks that lead up to the review. This helps prevent a culture of employees who are incentivized to work hard during the period just before reviews.

It will also give you specific examples to help you back up your points.

Finally, it gives you a chance to improve your overall performance evaluation process. If you take the time to note something, it probably means it’s important enough to give the employee a little feedback right then, so that they can improve, and you’re both on the same page come review time.

If you tell an employee that they need to improve in a certain area of the job, but can’t give examples, they may be skeptical or confused about exactly how they can improve.


Lay The Groundwork

About two weeks before the face-to-face review, ask your employee to note a few things he or she has done over the last year that they or consider achievements.   This will both help refresh your memory and will put a positive focus on an event that is so often seen as uncomfortable.

Some supervisors prefer to talk about the review together in real-time, while others prefer to give the written review to the employee about an hour before the meeting so the employee can have the initial emotional response — positive or negative — in the privacy of their own space. When people read someone’s assessment of them, they are going to have all sorts of churning emotions.  With the ability to process this on their own time, and the time to think about it, they are more prepared for a rational and constructive business conversation.


Set A Tone

Frequently, as supervisors are attempting to focus on both the effective areas and the areas in need of improvement, the review takes on a “feedback sandwich” approach with compliments, criticism, and more compliments. It is helpful to know what your goals are for the evaluation and stay on target.  Cover the positives first and then the negatives, rather than going back and forth.  Performance reviews are your chance to confront poor performers and require improvement.  It is always best, to be honest, and direct.  Individuals want to perform well.  They want to improve and be good at what they do.  If a supervisor cannot offer sound advice, this does nothing to help the employee.


Constructively Coach
Avoid making comparisons between employees.  This can breed unhealthy competition and resentment.  The feedback, good or bad, should be constructive and given to inspire better performance.  Ask employees how they feel about how things are going.

For both solid and poor performers, frame feedback in terms of a “stop, start, and continue” model. What is the employee doing now that is not working? What are they doing that is highly effective? What actions should they adopt to be more so? Focusing on behaviors, not dispositions, it takes the personal edge out of the conversation. Give specific advice and targeted praise.  Avoid saying things like: “You need to be more proactive.” That doesn’t mean anything. Instead, offer something like: “Take more initiative in calling family members who are not showing up for family therapy.” Similarly, “Saying: ‘You’re an innovator is nice, but it’s helpful to know exactly what they’re doing that reflects that.  Use specific examples when possible.


Be Honest

As mentioned earlier, “sugar-coating” feedback can’t help the employee or place of employment.  Be clear, honest, and straightforward about things that need to change or improve.

If an employee asks a question that you cannot answer, don’t try to fake it. No one will lose respect for you if you say, “I don’t know; let me get back to you.” On the other hand, if you give an answer that turns out to be false, you will lose respect and trust.  

Be kind, but be honest.


Evaluation Forms

It is a best practice to have an organized and consistent process for evaluating employees. This makes the process fairer and can help your employer avoid or defend against discrimination suits in the future.


Principles to Remember


  • Make it clear at the beginning of the year how you’ll evaluate your employees with individual performance planning sessions
  • Keep notes on employee performance throughout the year. Include dates of incidents, both negative and positive, with a description. – Talk to employees about issues and give them a chance to improve. – Document your evaluations.
  • Consider giving your employee a copy of their appraisal before the meeting so they may have their initial emotional response in private.
  • Deliver a positive message to your good performers by mainly concentrating on their strengths and achievements during the conversation


  • Offer general feedback; be specific on behaviors you want your employee to stop, start, and continue.
  • Sugarcoat the review for your poor performers; use the face-to-face as an opportunity to require improvement.

In a typical employee performance evaluation, they’ll discuss expectations that have been exceeded, met, and fallen short during a previous period.  Allow the employee to hear your expectations and your viewpoint on their performance, and then also allow them to discuss how they feel they have performed.  It can also be helpful to ask them what they feel they might need to be more effective. Don’t make promises on items you can’t deliver, but you might hear something that could benefit the employee and the place of work that is possible for you to provide.

Lastly, sometimes when an employee is unhappy with their review, they might take this as an opportunity to lodge complaints about management.  Take notes on these, showing the employee that you are hearing them out.  If the complaints are serious, these should be addressed.  Sometimes the employee is lashing out and says things they would not normally have even brought up.  Sometimes emotion gives them the necessity to clear the air on things that have been ongoing issues.  Although not entirely the right time, hearing about these issues can be beneficial.


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