How to make annual performance reviews less painful

You may be nearing the end-of-the-year performance review, a task often regarded as yet another administrative burden. Here's how to make it less painful and increase employee participation.

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The annual performance review is often dreaded by employees and managers alike. For employees, it's often perceived as an administrative task that feeds into a mysterious "black box" that results in a completely arbitrary outcome. For managers, it's piles of paperwork and a difficult allocation of scarce resources.

Here's how to make the annual performance review less painful, increase employee participation and streamline the overall process.

Make performance reviews more than a singular event

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of performance reviews is that for many organizations, they are a singular, annual event. Employees have no idea where they stand or how their performance is viewed during the year, creating additional tension and a seeming lack of transparency. Managers feel they must cram 52 weeks of feedback into a convoluted HR-driven process, making it painful for everyone.

Rather than waiting for the annual review, make performance discussions a regular event. At a minimum, have monthly check-ins with each of your staff and review how they're performing against their goals, development objectives, and how their current work fits into a long-range plan. Fifteen to thirty minutes once or twice a month turns annual performance reviews from a mysterious and painful process to a quick formalization of a discussion that's been ongoing throughout the year. Plus, regular check-ins foster a greater connection between managers and employees, ultimately increasing the performance of the overall team.

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Streamline the process

Companies are slowly transitioning away from annual reviews that require multipage forms and essay-style questions, where the employee that can write the best "stories" gets the best evaluation. If your company still requires employees to produce what amounts to annual book reports, chat with your HR team about how to streamline the process.

My company uses a simple, five-question "snapshot" that takes about five minutes to consider and complete, with the idea being that employees are constantly getting snapshots from people they work with, painting a more detailed picture that shows their performance over time, rather than just during the annual review. At year-end, discussions evolve around these snapshots rather than who can write the best self-assessment.

If you combine a streamlined process with regular check-ins and performance reviews, annual performance evaluations will become easier and more transparent for the employee, ultimately making them more willing to engage with the process.

SEE: Tips for getting the most from your performance reviews (free TechRepublic PDF)

Be clear about criteria

One of the biggest complaints I hear from employees about annual performance reviews is that the criteria and metrics by which they are evaluated were never clearly communicated. Imagine training for months and then running a race as hard as you can, only to be told at the finish line that competitors were scored not by their finish time, but by the color of their socks. Managers often do the same thing, communicating unclear or nonexistent goals and evaluation criteria at the beginning of the year, and then seemingly changing the rules of the game at the end of the year.

Communicate your expectations at the beginning of the year and share with each team member how they're performing against those goals. Also, communicate the overall evaluation methodology. If your company uses a forced ranking system, share how they're stacking up against their peers. If you use another methodology, share the approach and how the employee can "win" under the chosen criteria.

This might be simple and clear or require more thought from you as a manager. If you have a sales team, for example, it's easy to have a clear sales target and measure against that target. If you have a team of developers or internal consultants, your metrics might be a bit hazier, but as long as they are clearly communicated you'll find your employees are more willing to engage with the performance review process versus dreading it.

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Be fair to the top, bottom, and middle

I remember one of my first jobs, working extra hours and striving for a top rating. At the end of the year, I received an average rating. A bit miffed, I spoke with my manager who acknowledged that I was the top performer on the team, but that his policy was to give everyone an average rating so that the whole team received the same performance bonus and it was split "fairly." As you can imagine, I left shortly thereafter, unwilling to deliver a strong performance for an average reward.

At most companies, our job as a manager is to cultivate the high performers, coach and develop the middle of the pack, and help the bottom understand how to improve or find a way to transfer them to a more appropriate role inside or outside the company. This requires diligent thought and often tough conversations, but avoiding these due to some misguided notion of "fairness" can destroy the motivation of the entire team and further the impressions that performance reviews are a waste of time.

With some thought and tweaks, annual performance reviews can transition from a one-time, painful event, to something that employees relish as it puts the proverbial icing on the cake of a well-developed and transparent performance management process.

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