Use these HRMorning resources to make your performance reviews valuable and actionable. They will help you understand what makes for an effective performance review and why it is so important.
Using these tools, which include process tips, key phrases and examples of written reviews for employees at various career stages, you’ll be ready to nail the review process, write superior performance reviews and get the best work out of your team.
Click to jump ahead:
- What is a Performance Review?
- What is the Purpose of a Performance Review?
- Performance Review Process
- Post-Review Development Plan
- How to Write a Performance Review
- Performance Review Examples
- Performance Review Tips
What is a Performance Review?
Performance reviews are, at their core, a communication channel between employees and their supervisors. While primarily focused on evaluating employee performance and setting ongoing expectations, performance reviews should also give employees a chance to share their impressions of, and expectations for, their work situation.
Ideally, that communication increases cooperation and understanding between supervisors and employees, thus enhancing both work performance and the work environment. Those enhancements are reflected in better customer service, more engaged employees and improved organizational performance.
What is the Purpose of a Performance Review?
Whether conducted as an annual formal evaluation or a weekly check-in, performance reviews give employers and employees periodic opportunities to assess how well the employee’s efforts match with near- and long-term goals.
They also are a chance to adjust goals to ensure they continue to align with any changes in the organization’s strategic priorities.
In addition, performance reviews guide the development of training plans to maximize the employee’s strengths and address any skill or knowledge gaps that might hold them back.
Finally, while most organizations have now separated performance and compensation discussions, the performance review should correlate with merit pay and targeted bonuses based on performance and with promotions.
Performance Review Process
The traditional annual review is on its way out at more and more organizations, with increasing focus on continuous feedback and performance management.
Organizations are also refining the metrics they track and the frequency of and style of communication between supervisors and employees.
And jobs, schedules and training are all getting more personalized.
Despite those very significant changes, performance evaluation remains a process that follows specific steps, beginning with careful preparation on the part of supervisors.
Preparing for the performance review
Here are some of the key steps every supervisor should follow in planning a performance review. Many apply more directly to annual or semi-annual reviews, but you should keep them in mind as a framework for assessing performance in any setting.
- Review and update the employee’s job description. You should do a detailed review at least once a year, and any time an employee’s duties change. As part of a formal review, you should have the employee look at the description to assess whether it is accurate. You can’t provide a fair evaluation or usable feedback unless everyone understands and agrees about the employee’s responsibilities. If responsibilities have changed since the last performance review, revise the description and share the revisions with the employee before you provide any feedback.
- Take time to assess whether job functions are still aligned with organizational needs. It’s important to regularly ask the tough question, “Do the reasons we created this position still exist?”
Do the tasks involved contribute meaningfully to achieving our short- and long-term strategic goals? Or were they put in place to accomplish things that’re no longer needed or even slow us down? What should we eliminate? Add? Re-emphasize?
- Revisit how specific performance is measured. Performance should be evaluated according to established and agreed-upon expectations – the list of specific outcomes that the employee knows they know you expect them to accomplish. Where appropriate, each of those outcomes should have a completion timeframe and, in most cases, that timeframe shouldn’t be more than 12 months. Many organizations call these Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).
- Assess training and development needs. Employee goals should be fair but challenging. Achieving some of them will often require new or improved skills. If existing goals included training, check the employee’s progress towards completing the training and achieving expected competencies. If setting or resetting future goals, be prepared to discuss what training will be needed, and deadlines and required achievements and how the employee can access needed training resources. And keep in mind that there is only so much time in each day/week/month/year. Employees will have to accomplish training goals while also achieving all their performance goals.
- Remind yourself that you need to be objective and fair. You are assessing actual performance, not anticipated or potential work performance.
And it is critical that you don’t let any personal likes and dislikes get in the way of measuring actual performance.
It isn’t easy for any of us to always recognize personal prejudices, bias, or favoritism that might color an assessment. But remember: this is about more than just being fair. You also have an obligation to avoid getting your organization into serious legal trouble.
- Make notes. Even if you’re just doing a quick check in, you should have at least a short list of items to discuss with the employee.
- Set a time. Whether it’s texting “Have a minute this afternoon to review the week?” or scheduling two weeks in advance for their annual review, make sure the employee knows that you’ll be discussing performance and has a chance to prepare.
- Focus. As much as possible, focus on just one or two factors in regular feedback sessions. For more formal reviews, be sure you analyze the employee’s performance against each factor listed on the performance evaluation form.
Conducting the Review
The less formal check-in and feedback sessions typical of continuous performance management can happen nearly anywhere, whether at the employee’s workstation, in the cafeteria or on a walk around the building.
Still, even though the location and discussion might be more casual, you need to keep some basics in mind.
Most importantly, any substantive performance discussion is a private interaction between you and the employee. Watch your volume and be aware of anyone who’s within earshot.
Avoid interruptions. Whether the discussion takes 5 minutes or 20, avoid answering your phone or responding to a text unless it is truly urgent. If you must break away, be clear that you want to continue as soon as possible and make sure that it happens soon.
If the discussion turns to more sensitive topics or just needs more time, stop and reset. That may just mean saying, “Let’s move this to the conference room” or require scheduling a longer meeting as soon as possible.
When a performance evaluation requires a more detailed discussion, whether that’s to go into more detail on something that came up in a check-in or a formal annual review following these guidelines will help you and the employee get the most value from the process.
- Choose a quiet place where you can both focus just on the evaluation. If possible, choose a neutral location.
- Always meet privately and avoid all interruptions, including telephone calls. Making a point of turning off your own phone will tell the employee the review is your most important task right now.
- Allow plenty of time. The employee should never feel like this process has been rushed.
- Talk about the employee’s strengths as well as any challenges or areas of weakness. If an employee is worth keeping, you want a performance evaluation to keep them positive and engaged. That means acknowledging and encouraging high-quality work along with an honest assessment of where they need to improve performance.
- When discussing weaknesses, be specific about what needs improvement when those improvements must be made. Be very clear about the consequences for not making those improvements. Make suggestions for how to address those areas and ask the employee to propose steps they think will help them achieve required performance. While it may not happen at this meeting, the evaluation is not complete until you and the employee agree on timelines and specific actions to be taken to address performance issues.
- Ask for the employee’s input on setting new goals and KPIs/OKRs as well. The more involved they are in “designing” their jobs, the more committed they will be to achieving results. Again, the review isn’t complete until you and the employee agree on new and continuing goals and how you’ll measure progress.
- Guide the conversation but don’t dominate it. Remember, a major goal of performance reviews is to open an effective channel of communication between you and the employee. Let them do most of the talking; don’t interrupt or cross-examine and be willing to listen to and learn from the employee. Repeat what they tell you back to them to be sure you understood what they said.
And it is worth repeating. Part of a supervisor’s responsibility in conducting performance reviews is protecting your organization from serious legal problems. How a performance review is conducted and documented can win or lose a lawsuit if an employee sues for discrimination or wrongful termination.
Employment lawyers Squire Patton Boggs warn of common mistakes supervisors make during reviews:
- Failing to follow established review procedures and timelines
- Not thoroughly documenting performance reviews
- Failing to have written performance ratings sync up with verbal comments made during the review
- Giving inflated ratings to avoid difficult conversations or hurting workers’ feelings or
- Basing ratings on factors not included in a job description and performance plans, and
- Not giving specifics about what an employee did well or still need to improve on.
In short, be prepared, be objective, be honest, be detailed, be firm, and be clear.
Post-Review Development Plan
Whether addressing a problem area or preparing the employee to take on additional responsibilities, formal development plans are critical to increasing an employee’s value to the organization and the organizations ability to achieve strategic goals.
That’s why identifying an employee’s training and development needs is among the most important dividends of a well-designed performance review process.
Often organizations think about employee development primarily in the context of a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) focused on addressing job- or behavior-related performance deficiencies.
Here, however, we focus on development plans’ value as tool to encourage and enable good performers to improve on the high-quality work they’ve been doing and to take on new responsibilities.
They are also a key to retaining your best workers. Surveys show that employees see career development as one of the most important reasons to keep working – and working hard – for any organization.
And, when they don’t see a commitment to helping them gain skills needed to advance their careers, your employees are open to offers from competitors who are investing in learning and development.
Whether it comes out of a continuous performance management process or a traditional annual assessment, a development plan has specific objectives:
- Identifying long-term (5+ years) goals/career objectives
- Setting short-term (1 – 5 years) goals and career steps that will help achieve long-term goals
- Agreeing on specific steps (classwork, cross training, project assignments, etc.) which will help achieve short-term goals
- Prioritizing those steps
- Setting firm target dates for completion of each action step.
- Defining specific tasks and schedules to accomplish each step.
Many of those goals, steps and tasks will be shared across teams, of course, but most need to be laser-focused on the individual employee.
Personalization is moving out of the realm of business-to-consumer commerce and into almost every arena of human activity. For HR, this trend means empowering employees to find the best path to mastering skills needed to do their jobs.
That translates into a need for customized training that focuses on the specific requirements of a job and individual employees’ specific skills and skill gaps.
That can be tough for small HR departments. The good news is that there are a growing number of technology solutions that can help even the smallest HR team develop and implement flexible, personalized programs.
When those are tied closely to continuous evaluation and feedback, training plans can adapt more quickly to changing job requirements — and become more relevant to employees.
How to Write a Performance Review
Written performance reviews should always include a few paragraphs explaining the manager’s general assessment of how the employee is doing.
It works best when managers take some latitude as to the content of this part. The assessment requires a general judgment on performance during the past year and a call to action for the future.
The written review should lay out a clear career path and let people know that their work is appreciated by their colleagues, their manager(s) and the organization.
Managers may want to use some of these exact words (when they are true) to make employees feel good about themselves, their work and their employer.
It’s good to characterize the review by opening the conversation saying something like, “This is a mostly positive review …” or “You’ve had a very good year ….”
Remember: Be careful with superlatives – since managers want people to have an even better year next year.
For instance, it can never be “the best ever …” since that’s always yet to come.
A good way to do this is to build on what they already said in the review about liking the job and the people they work with.
To be able to do this and insert the appropriate phrases in the written review, it is helpful during the verbal review to ask the employee what he or she likes best about the job and then repeat that language.
If there is substantial doubt about the desirability of the employee’s continued service, a Performance Improvement Plan should be implemented.
Performance Review Questions
Like a good interview, performance review questions should never ask for Yes or No responses. Similarly, don’t lead the employee by indicating that you are looking for a particular response.
Questions need to be straightforward and focused on getting the employee to describe their responsibilities, challenges, and performance in their own words.
In addition to asking about performance, the questions should explore what skills the employee thinks they need to improve, either to do their current job satisfactorily or to prepare for additional responsibility.
Here’s an example of a written questionnaire you can use to determine how an employee understands their responsibilities and how well, or poorly, they think they are fulfilling those responsibilities.
For annual reviews, especially, the answers to these questions provide a framework for the conversation between supervisor and employee.
Sample performance review questionnaire
[Name of Organization] Performance Evaluation Questions
From time to time, it is our practice to hold performance reviews.
These reviews are not intended as “report cards” – rather, they are a chance for us to evaluate together where you have been, how you are doing and where you are going.
Part of what makes these reviews valuable is your preparation. The more thought you put into the process, the more you get out of it.
Please evaluate the following questions.
- What are your job responsibilities, as you understand them?
- Rate and evaluate how you are doing in each area.
- What aspect of your performance are you most pleased with?
- What aspect of your performance do you think you need to work hardest on in the coming months?
- What skills do you want to improve most on and how do you plan to do it? What help do you need?
- What is the one thing you are happiest about in your current work environment?
- What is the one thing you are unhappiest about and would like to change?
- How are we doing in satisfying your needs?
Optional additional question:
- Are there any specific professional aspirations, hopes or ambitions that I should be aware of as your supervisor?
Performance Review Phrases
Once you’ve reviewed the employee’s self-evaluation and had a meeting to discuss their performance, it’s time to sit down and document your evaluation.
On the written review form, the phrasing needs to be a little more formal and should be consistent across all employees’ reviews.
Here are a few helpful examples of performance review phrase you might use, broken out into general categories:
- Consistently arrives on time for work, meetings and training and development sessions
- Improved attendance at non-mandatory training and meetings
- Meets deadlines or provides sufficient notice when is unable to meet them
- Consistently exceeds production targets
- Has demonstrated significant improvement in achieving production targets since last review
- Consistently lags team in meeting targets
- Effectively communicates with project teams
- Escalates issues in a timely manner
- Displays improved listening and comprehension when receiving and executing instructions
- Needs to be clearer when communicating expectations to direct reports and peers
- Collaborates effectively with team members to complete projects on time and at high quality
- Has improved in seeking help when needed to complete projects on time
- Actively works to share knowledge and solicit input from other team members
- Needs to better support team members who ask for help or explanations in completing assignments
- Needs to be more proactive in monitoring direct reports’ progress on assignments and providing resources in a timely manner when required
- Needs to work on suggesting solutions rather than only complaining about perceived problems
- Has demonstrated ability to understand and solve problems but needs to take more initiative rather than waiting for instruction
- Shows creativity and initiative when tackling complicated problems
- Tends to make excuses and blame others for problems instead of seeking solutions
- Encourages and empowers direct reports to find solutions on their own and as part of the team
- Seeks new approaches when established processes and procedures are no longer effective
- Adapts willingly and effectively to changing requirements
- Tends to resist new approaches and argue against needed changes in the face of declining results
- Accepts and implements constructive criticism and guidance to improve performance
- Actively Seeks increased responsibility and takes on new challenges with enthusiasm
- Looks for creative ways to improve team results and delight customers
- Works consistently to improve skills and learn new skills
- Does not take initiative in pursuing training and development
- Avoids taking on additional responsibility and new assignments
- Leads by example, demonstrating consistent strong effort and ethical professional behavior
- Makes certain that employees have a clear understanding of their responsibilities
- Needs to improve communication style to avoid condescending to direct reports and peers
- Creates an environment of trust where team members feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions
Performance Review Examples
Of course, a performance review can’t just be a series of bulleted phrases. Here are three examples of written evaluations of employees at different stages in their careers.
Example #1: Review of a very promising junior employee
(Given at six months, this review is designed to push an employee to stretch)
To: [Employee Name]
From: [Name of Supervisor]
RE: Performance review
Date: [Date of Review]
Here’s a summary of what we discussed at the performance review last XXXXX after your first six months here:
You are well on the way to meeting and in some areas exceeding the expectations we had of you as to where you would be after one full year with us. We have every reason to believe that after your first year, you will be able to function as reliable employee in an important position, producing quality results with as little supervision as possible. There are other things connected with being a valuable employee: liaison with the marketing department, public speaking skills to enthuse others, etc. (Be specific.)
But if you dedicate yourself to a solid learning process, your long-term goal of eventually becoming a manager and training others in our way of producing business results also seems achievable at this point. You will realize that you still have much to learn on principles of management, leadership skills, the big-picture business executive outlook, principles of marketing, etc.
You’d do well to concentrate for the moment on becoming the best at what you currently do. That will give you the confidence that will serve as the building block for future success in all other areas.
We’ll do everything we can to help you achieve it
Example #2: Review of a strong employee seeking a promotion
To: [Name of Employee]
From: [Name of Supervisor]
RE: Performance review
Date: [Date of Review]
To memorialize last week’s performance review, here’s a summary of what we discussed:
- Sense of ownership of your work
- Self-starter mentality, initiative for coming up with ideas
- Developmental activities, both in formal and informal settings with selected employees
- Keen awareness of and adherence to processes/procedures
- Strong core-area skills (Be specific.)
Emerging skills you need to build on:
- Keeping pace with technological advances
You have mastered execution of most specific aspects of your work, but yours is a field that is always changing and updating itself. It’s incumbent on successful employees to stay abreast of these changes to keep themselves updated and ahead of the technological curve.
- Making yourself results-driven
You take to heart the task of making your work the best it can be, but I don’t yet get a keen sense you have etched in your mind it’s all for a business purpose – (put specifics here). Make those numbers your personal goal and link your tasks more closely to business results.
- Building and maintaining good relationships
Good relationships are the heart and soul of future business arrangements. These strategic relationships need to be developed and maintained on a regular basis.
Areas that still need some more work:
Deadlines have turned out to be your biggest challenge. You should be able to organize customer needs and deliver service consistently, not just now and again. Find ways to maintain that momentum!
- Become better at thinking ahead instead of just instinctively acting.
- Activate the left “analytical” part of brain, not just right creative side.
- Read and emulate success stories of others.
- Knowledge of and feel for general management and business principles
- You have started to read business and management books, but a sophisticated level of understanding of business principles does not yet consistently show in your work.
- Continue reading management and business books.
- Discuss what you’ve learned, show it in “upward communication” reports.
Example #3: Tough feedback to a newer employee
To: [Employee Name]
From: [Supervisor Name]
RE: Performance review
Date: [Date of Review]
Here’s a summary of what we discussed:
- Organizational skills and time management
- Attitude and work ethic
- Initiative – you’re anxious to take on more than what’s required and expected
- Clear communicator.
Areas to work on:
Flexibility. You’re strong-willed and you believe in yourself. Strong convictions have given you a confidence base that served you well in learning a difficult field and making the progress to date, which is considerable. There is a flip side to strong convictions, however. If they aren’t tempered by flexibility, it can result in rigidity. There is no room for rigidity in our culture. We’re a flexible company with few rules – the only rule is to try to serve our customers the best possible way. You’ve exhibited something bordering on rigidity in several ways. On a fairly minor point, you’re sometimes hesitant to start over when that’s exactly what is needed. We don’t believe ironclad rules on who does what make sense from the point of view of serving customers.
We also admire your ambition to be named a Group Leader in short order, but it worries us that you apparently think that you’re just about there. You have already told us that we will have to agree to disagree on this point, but we still urge you to try to understand – and at least respect – management’s point of view. As long as the managerial hand-holding must continue to get your projects into market shape, you have to realize that any promotion is premature. Your focus at present should be on continuing to learn your field, or, in terms of a sports analogy, continuing to chart plays from the bench, understanding why something worked and why something else didn’t, instead of tugging at the sleeves of the coach saying, “Put me in coach, I can do it.” We hold no one back unfairly. We have a crying need for good people. When you’re ready for more responsibility, we won’t hesitate one moment to confer it.
Developing expertise. You learned a lot about your products this past year, but you have still more to learn. You may now understand the market needs, but you don’t always find the best ways to fill them.
Be relentless in your efforts to find out what any piece of info really means to our customers, make the extra telephone call to regulators, consultants or other sources. Learn how business works in general and how business principles apply to your field. Ask in-house experts. Set up a site visit. Go to conferences to rub shoulders with our people. Above all, seize every opportunity to talk to customers on the phone. We’ll help you in every way we can to scale the learning curve faster.
You came to us with little practical experience. We hired you mainly on the raw desire and determination we saw in you. In view of that, you have exceeded our expectations during your first year here. Your eagerness to learn a difficult area has pleasantly surprised us. You’ve made outstanding progress and you’ve shown yourself to be reliable. That’s made you an important part of the team that has shown improvements in the business results. You can be proud of what you have achieved in your first year, but that pride should be tempered by a healthy dose of humility, the realization we all have about how much more there is to learn.
This is a generally positive review that hopefully provides the road map for your journey to scale the next level at our company. Your intermediate goal is to (be specific here). Following this road map can get you there.
Over the next few months, we think it’s a good idea to open up another avenue of learning for you in an unrelated market area, so you’ll be progressing on more than one track simultaneously. That’s so you will be able to take advantage of the first realistic opportunity for substantial advancement that arises. We trust you’ll tackle any new assignment with the same dedication you’ve shown so far.
Performance Review Tips
First, another reminder that performance reviews can create or contribute to legal problems for your organization. It’s easy to overlook key parts and end up in a legal mess with employees. To help avoid that, check your review process against this checklist:
Performance appraisals serve 6 functions:
- Evaluate an employee’s status
- Encourage or change behavior
- Set goals
- Serve as a basis for rewards or corrective action
- Serve as a basis for training and development plans
- Create a detailed record of job requirements and performance
Effective and legal reviews all share these key components:
- Consistent standards
- Complete and accurate documentation
- Open communication
- Honesty and fairness
Ineffective performance reviews can cause:
- Perceived unfair treatment
- Low morale
- Bad relationships between employee and supervisor
- Mixed messages
- Gaps between what the employee thinks and what the supervisor thinks
A successful performance appraisal is finished when:
- Employee has been rated using clear and fair standards
- Accomplishments and improvement needs have been acknowledged by both parties
- Goals have been set
- How the goals will be reached has been established
- Key points have been documented by supervisor and signed by both parties
And remember, a performance review is about feedback. It is a conversation about how much meaning and purpose a manager can create with an employee.
No performance review can be successful unless the manager has already given good feedback and direction regularly throughout the year, making assessments and adjustments along the way, and building rapport and confidence with the employee.
Here are six tips that will help get the most out of informal check ins and formal performance reviews.
1. Hold periodic informal feedback sessions.
Your best bet for accomplishing this is to mark your calendar with dates and notes such as “Hold a ‘how ya doing’ talk with Hank” to remind you periodically throughout the year to sit down with employees to discuss their performance – outside the formal appraisal setup.
That promotes a “no surprises” environment when you do the actual face-to-face appraisal later on. These informal talks create “check-up” points along the way, and help keep the manager and the employee focused on the worker’s development.
2. Keep a record of the informal sessions.
Nothing fancy, but try to keep notes of what was said, what was agreed upon and when you talked. Notes like that can help resolve disputes that might come up later during the formal review.
This kind of documentation will let you respond with specific comments like, “When we talked in August, you said …”
3. Standardize your evaluation criteria as much as possible.
If you have two or more employees doing similar jobs, you’ll want to make sure you’re using the same standards to judge their performance – whether it’s straight productivity numbers, quality levels, revenue generation or other measurable criteria.
The reasons for standardizing are threefold:
- It’ll make your life easier, in that you won’t have to reinvent the wheel for every review. You’ll have a predetermined set of standards that you can use each time.
- It’ll make more sense to your employees. They’ll have a clear understanding what’s required and what they’re being judged on.
- It’ll help avoid lawsuits and charges of favoritism or discrimination. The main cause of complaints is fuzzy measurement. If Employee A thinks he’s being held to a different set of standards than Employee B, expect Employee A to complain – to a lawyer, in some instances.
4. Study the employee’s previous performance review.
Were goals laid out? Were promises made? Did subsequent events change any of the employee’s circumstances since the last review?
It’s important to familiarize yourself with all the components of the previous review, especially if the review was done by another manager. You don’t want to be caught off-guard or appear to be unaware of major agreement or problems.
5. Ask the employee to do a write-up of accomplishments.
Some people may expect you to remember everything. Fact is you can’t. No one can. That’s where the employee’s write-up, or “self-evaluation,” comes in handy.
You’ll (a) get a reminder of what the employee has accomplished since the last review and (b) have a basis and for comparing your evaluation and resolving differences. The last thing you want is to walk into a review and get surprised by the idea that the two of you have totally different views on what happened since the last review.
6. Talk to customers, relevant co-workers and other points of contact for the employee.
Just about every employee does tasks that go unnoticed by a supervisor. It’s unavoidable, and no supervisor can be expected to know and see everything.
A supervisor is, however, expected to do a little legwork to learn as much as possible about the employee. Did she, without being asked or recognized, help another employee with a difficult project? Did she go the extra mile for an important customer?
As a responsible supervisor, you’ll want to find out about those instances. And the more you can find about, the better. Multiple sources will give you a better-balanced view, rather than relying on one source who says the employee is great — or terrible.