Tips for delivering a successful performance review

Some managers hate to do performance reviews for their employees. Some don't do them well. Avoid falling into either of these categories by following these helpful tips on how to make the most of the review process.

It’s performance review time, and it’s your job to hand out the report cards to the class. It’s tempting to think that life would be much easier if you could just be on the receiving end of the review, but the world of management has its duties. It’s your job to be the tough guy.

And guess what? You really don’t have to dread the job. It’s a great chance to help make your team even more efficient—and you’ll find out what they need to remain happy with their jobs.

Most managers worry about awkward situations: How do you tell someone who’s doing a good job overall about the few things you’d like to change? (Answer: Very carefully.) But if you think that a review is all about nitpicking, you’ve got some learning to do. Sit back, and discover how to use the performance review process to its greatest potential.
  • Get your job descriptions down pat. Know what your team members were hired to do—the goals and expectations the company had for them when they started, the responsibilities they’re supposed to have, and the skills they were slated to acquire. Now look at what they’ve actually accomplished. Often, it’s more than what the company bargained for—and you should be sure to note that and recognize it in the review. Your employees will feel gratified that their work isn’t for nothing.
  • Don’t take your employees by surprise. Give them the time they need to prepare their own materials. You can even offer them guidelines on what exactly to prepare. For example, suggest that they write up an informal evaluation of their work and make a list of what they hope to accomplish in the coming months. If you spring a review on an unsuspecting employee, he or she will feel manipulated and doubt your trust.
  • Present the positive first. Unless the employee is a lost cause (in which case a review is useless), find a good opener. And be specific: Don’t just compliment his long hours and obvious dedication. Instead, focus on a precise example of that dedication, a particular project where his work earned the respect and praise of a client. Try to list several positive traits, and back up each one with concrete examples.
  • Keep your criticism constructive. If you tell your employee that she is sloppy, she is not going to take it well. But if you suggest that her organizational skills could use some work, she’s likely to be more receptive. And again, the details matter. If you give her specific examples of how she can be better organized, such as filtering her e-mail or using Microsoft Office’s tasks feature, you’ll both enjoy better results. Listen carefully. If an employee needs help to do her job better, hear what she’s saying, and see how you can work together for the greater good. Does she need more training? Can you help her get it? Brainstorm ways to solve problems instead of fixating on the fact that there are problems. And when you talk about areas for improvement, never compare one employee to another. You can compare an employee to his or her own prior performance or to company standards, but if you pit your employees against each other, you’ll soon have mutiny on your hands.
  • Set new goals. Many managers overlook this step, or dismiss employees with a casual “Keep up the good work.” Don’t make that mistake. Take some time— ahead of time—to write out what you hope employees will accomplish in the next 6-12 months, and if possible, describe how their roles fits into the larger picture of the company’s goals.
  • Put your money where your mouth is. If the employee has done a great job and deserves a raise, it should be forthcoming. But don’t open with that, and don’t try to preempt a legitimate raise request with a lowball offer. It’s insulting, and it’s a sure way to send good people packing. If your employee doesn’t bring up a raise, ask what she was hoping for. If it’s reasonable and deserved, give it to her. If it’s reasonable and deserved but not in your budget, get creative, and look for alternate ways to compensate her. Don’t let a few dollars in the short run cost your company long-term productivity.

If you approach a performance review correctly, you and your team will benefit. You’ll work better together, you’ll get more done in less time, and you’ll trust each other. And as you build trust, giving reviews will get easier and easier.