Making Performance Reviews Positive

Jun 29, 2007

Katherine Spencer Lee

The feedback you provide employees through these discussions can be instrumental in improving productivity and morale in your department.

A survey by Robert Half Technology (RHT) found that 77% of workers feel the comments they receive from supervisors during performance reviews are valuable. While the feedback you provide is almost always appreciated, the way you manage the entire appraisal process determines just how useful your comments truly are.

What follows are the five common mistakes to avoid:

Holding reviews just once a year: Even if your firm schedules performance evaluations annually, it’s best not to save your comments for once-a-year meetings. Instead, you should treat the review process as continuous.

If employees aren’t told when they do something well or fall short of expectations, they’ll be unable to make substantial contributions to the team. For instance, someone who excels in a particular area may not continue to shine without regular positive reinforcement. And you can’t expect a help desk professional to improve his or her customer service skills if this person isn’t told right away when performance has missed the mark.

Sticking to the forms: Many companies have standard evaluation forms managers throughout the organization use. While these documents can provide a good foundation for the meeting, using them to dictate the entire discussion can turn it into a one-way talk.

Often, there are issues worth addressing that aren’t covered on the forms. Keep employees engaged in the conversation by allowing them to respond to your comments. They may have useful insights that address concerns you have or make you aware of contributions not noted in your assessment.

Mishandling criticism: One of the most challenging aspects of performance appraisals is telling employees their work isn’t meeting standards. Many managers dread providing criticism so much that they gloss over negative feedback in a way that makes their comments confusing and valueless.

For instance, if you say to a member of your team, “Your writing skills are poor, but no one in this department is a great writer,” the person is left to wonder what you mean. Should he ask a colleague to proofread his memos before sending them out? Should he take a class in business communication? Does he need to do anything at all?

To ensure staff members clearly understand areas you feel they could improve, provide specific examples, rather than generalities. Here’s an example: “The e-mail you distributed to employees about the new database system upgrade was full of grammatical and spelling errors, which could cause others to question our department’s attention to detail. Several other documents have contained similar problems.”

Also be careful that you’re criticizing a person’s behavior, not personality. For instance, telling someone that he or she is “easily stressed” makes the feedback personal and doesn’t pinpoint the issue as well as a comment like, “I’ve noticed that you tend to make more mistakes and miss deadlines when things are at their busiest. Let’s talk about how to address this.”

Collaborate with employees on possible solutions to their challenges. Employees should leave the meeting with a game plan for improving future job performance.

Combining salary discussions into reviews: It’s quite common for organizations to address pay raises during performance reviews. However, this isn’t always the best strategy. When people know they may learn of an increase in compensation, they could be eager for the discussion about their work to conclude and not listen closely to what is being said.

Additionally, you may gain insight during a review that affects your decision about an employee’s raise. For instance, you might learn someone played a larger role in your group’s success than you realized or, conversely, a smaller role.

Failing to document future goals: Give a copy of the appraisal to employees, and don’t forget to also include a written list of career objectives that they should strive toward over the next 12 months. This document can serve as a useful reference for staff members, outlining what they must accomplish to meet your expectations and continue their professional development. At the same time, it can help you measure performance at the next review meeting and throughout the year.

Even if you have conducted countless performance appraisals over the course of your career, take a careful look at how you manage the process. You may want to solicit your staff’s suggestions on ways to improve it.

Often, there are small ways you can modify your approach, such as providing more feedback throughout the year or relaxing the structure of your meetings, that make these assessments less intimidating and more beneficial for everyone.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from e-business development and multi-platform systems integration to network engineering and technical support. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in the North America and Europe, and offers online job search services at


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