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Boss’s Tip of the Week #18: Performance Reviews: How To Keep Employees On Track

Here is the latest installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

Although performance reviews often settle at the bottom of a manager’s to-do list, almost nothing bugs employees more than reviews that are late, inaccurate, or never happen. Employees are right—reviews are necessary. You may believe that employees “know how they’re doing,” but in fact they often don’t know. Even if they do know, they want their perceptions validated. Without objective reviews, many of your decisions about raises, promotions, and so on may seem (or even be) arbitrary and unfair.

There is no magic to make reviews stress-free, but you can take certain steps to make them valuable development tools and enhance your credibility as a manager:

Make reviews a priority. Block out time on your calendar to write them and to meet with employees. (Share the date with employees so that you have an incentive to do the review. Then hold to the date unless you have a really good reason not to.) If need be, take time out of the office to focus on writing the review. If doing reviews is right up there with filing a tax return on your list of favorite tasks, reward yourself for getting them done on time with a nice lunch, a sundae, or a round of golf.

Tie reviews to something. Reviews measure progress against goals and expectations. If the goals are met, employees should be rewarded. (The reward doesn’t have to be a raise—it might be a chance to work on a really cool new project, or other perk.) What sort of work would students produce if they had no idea whether their efforts would earn an A, a D, or no grade at all?

Having said that, you may want to detach cost-of-living increases from reviews. Such increases are generally given to all employees to keep pace with inflation. They aren’t tied to performance, but people may believe they are if they are discussed during the review.

Be consistent. Reviews are not an improvisational art form. They demand a consistent format, especially for all employees in the same job. Your company may have forms that you can or must use. If not, you can buy standard forms or software from management supply firms. You also can create your own form and then use it consistently. There is no “right” format, but be sure you’re reviewing behavior and skills related to the position.

Be thorough. Most review forms use a scale, such as “excellent, good, fair, poor” or “far exceeds expectations, exceeds expectations, meets expectations, does not meet expectations,” or a numerical scale. Whatever format you use, use the scale as a means and not an end. How does the employee exceed expectations? Be specific, and use objective data whenever possible. Offer examples of behavior that you’d like to see more of or that needs improvement.

Also be sure that the review includes examples from throughout the review period. Many reviews inadvertently focus only on the 90 days or so preceding the review because that’s what managers remember. Don’t deprive people of credit for great work done during the early part of the review period, or overlook major problems during that time.

Your mission is not to write War and Peace, but it shouldn’t fit on a cocktail napkin, either.

Don’t play games. Some reviewers withhold top ratings in the theory that “no one is perfect” or “if I give the top rating, then there is nowhere for the employee to go.” Bad idea! Unless you can offer concrete ways in which an employee can do better in a given area, she should get the top rating. Likewise, never rate an employee higher than he merits to avoid hurting the employee’s feelings, having a confrontation, or discouraging him.

Don’t spring surprises. Reviews should summarize and validate; they should not shock. Don’t wait until the review to let an employee know he’s at risk of being fired. But employees also shouldn’t get good news (such as a promotion) during a review unless they understand that a decision is pending. Reviews should be just one of many conversations you have about performance.

Get employee input. A review is an opportunity for dialogue, not a one-sided information dump. Encourage employees to rate their own performance. Most will be honest, and they may raise issues that surprise you. Always leave space on the review form for employees to respond to their review.

Set a course for the future. A good review is almost as much about the future as it is about the past. It should give an employee a good idea of what’s next. How can he earn another raise? Is training available that the employee needs or can opt for? Are there deficiencies that the employee must address? What opportunities exist for promotion, and how are they earned? What goals do you have for the employee in the coming year? If you don’t foresee any significant changes in the employee’s job, she deserves to know that, too.

Meet with the employee. A review is an opportunity for discussion, so just handing an employee his review isn’t enough. Sit down with the employee and talk through the year’s accomplishments and the next year’s goals. These meetings work best if you

• Set aside at least 30 minutes for a meeting.

• Make an appointment.

• Give the employee a copy of the review during your meeting so he or she can to ask questions or comment.

• Get a copy of the employee’s comments so you can review them.

• Meet in private and deflect interruptions.

• Meet in a neutral place (such as a conference room).

• Spend at least as much time listening as talking.

Review the job description. If an employee’s job has changed enough that her job description is no longer current, now is a great time to update it and review it with the employee.

Real Life Examples

• Dave’s review was months late, but his manager assured him that he would “get to it.” Then, as the six-month mark approached, the manager gave notice that he was leaving. Still, there was no review. Finally, on the manager’s last day, he asked Dave for a ride home. As they pulled into the manager’s driveway, Dave finally got his review: three lines scribbled on the back of scratch paper.

• Jane ran into her boss in the ladies’ room. They said hello, and as Jane entered the stall, her boss told her (over the sound of running water while she washed her hands), “Oh, Jane, by the way, you got the promotion!” Jane, who was by now sitting down, didn’t know just what to say. When she was first hired she had been told she’d be promoted from an administrative support role to a specialist position after one year. She was now well past the one year mark, wondering if she’d ever get that promotion.  Jane should have been very relieved and happy, but to be told while sitting in a stall in the ladies room?  Somehow, that scenario had never occurred to her.

• Madeline had been with her company for more than three years, and it was time for her annual review. It was, as always, positive. Then there it was, in the last sentence on the last page: promotion to manager of her department. Surprise! No one had ever asked Madeline whether she wanted to be a manager. No one had told her that she was being considered for the job, or shared what the job entailed. No one had in any way prepared her for the responsibility she had just been handed.

• Her supervisor put off doing Mary’s review because she wanted to identify all the work-related problems she was having with Mary and develop a performance plan to correct them. Months went by and the problems persisted. Then Mary announced that she was pregnant. Two weeks later, Mary made another mistake like those that Mary’s boss had intended to discuss during the review. Feeling that the mistake was the last straw, the boss went to HR with her decision to fire Mary. But HR was surprised that the boss didn’t see how her decision seemed to be based on Mary’s pregnancy. After all, there was no review to suggest that Mary had performance problems—and certainly not ongoing ones. Mary stayed.

Boss’s Tip of the Week #18: Performance Reviews: How To Keep Employees On Track
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