Uncategorized | December 16, 2015

Death of the Annual Performance Review

Years ago, I interned at a film production company. I would read screenplays and evaluate each piece.

I had the internship for one semester.

And for the dozens of screenplays I reviewed, I had no idea I was filling out the evaluation form incorrectly.

In class, my professor taught me a certain way to write a story synopsis.

Apparently that was very different than what this production company was looking for, so all of my synopses was really far off the mark.

But I had no idea.

I thought I was just killing it.

My supervisor would make passing comments like, “This synopsis looks a bit long…”

I would offer to shorten it, but then continued writing them the same way, because I thought it was the right way to do it. It wasn’t until the end of the internship when I finally got the feeling I was messing it up and I asked flat-out, “Am I doing this wrong?”

And then she explained what their expectations were for what a synopsis looked like.

Which was super helpful considering that was like five days before the internship ended.

Point is, my bad habit was perpetuated because I had no idea I was doing it incorrectly.

The reason the annual performance review is dying is because it’s ridiculous to postpone feedback for so long, or situations like I was in (but usually on a much larger scale, and with more important data) hurts growth because employees think they’re doing a good job.

What if after the first evaluation I turned in, my supervisor had pulled me aside and showed me how they wanted it to be done? I would have done it correctly for the entire semester.

Postponing reviews hurts the company, the team, and the potential growth of each employee since it’s easy to solidify bad habits.

And I’m not the only one who thinks this way.

John Reh advocates that the review is a waste of time, and employers should instead focus on immediate feedback. It’s a relatively common opinion now that annual performance reviews are detrimental to your company.

Of course the review process has to be supplemented with a healthy alternative that will keep employees engaged with company values, goals, and updates.

Whether you do reviews bi-monthly, quarterly, or small weekly check-ins – no matter what your frequency is, there are some common themes that make up an effective review.

Have the Right Motivation

Employees aren’t the only ones disengaged with the annual performance review.

So are employers.

It’s tedious to write up all that information.

But they can’t expect employees to feel engaged and motivated by the review if they themselves aren’t engaged with it. Victor Lipman wrote,

“The real problem isn’t the annual employee review itself. It’s management. It’s the way annual reviews are all too often administered. If managers aren’t selected and trained properly, or don’t set clear job objectives or provide meaningful regular feedback, then yes, I guarantee the end-of-year review will be a problem. More likely a train wreck.”

It’s important for employers to not treat the review as something to do at the last minute or to treat it as a second thought.

Instead, they should be thinking constantly about the process, keeping careful notes about their employees so that whenever they do check-in, they have a list of ongoing, relevant, and timely notes.

Make It Easy to Read

What are you more likely to read?

  1. A large block of text, smooshed together with no indentation, bullet points, or numbering with several four-syllable words that aren’t commonly used in the English language.
  2. Or, would you rather have a neatly laid out sheet with plenty of white space, a clear layout, and to-the-point language that doesn’t mince words.

When working out performance reviews, do everything you can to make it pleasing to the eye. Form an intimate relationship with bullet points. They are your friends. When formatting the review, be sure to:

  • Keep points organized under subheads.
  • Utilize italics and boldface
  • Contrast fonts.
  • Be consistent with alignment.
  • Space things out and keep elements close together.

(For more on good design principles, check out Robin Williams’ book, The Non-Designers Design Book.)

Be sure to have access to the most vital information when preparing for the review, including:

  • Job description details.
  • Last year’s appraisal, so you can compare it with the employee’s current performance.
  • Feedback prepared for you employee that he or she can act on (both from you as the employer and from customers, when applicable).
  • Examples of successes and accomplishments (particularly those that have occurred since the last review).
  • Specific examples and evidence for negative feedback.

Also, when you come together for the meeting, have it take place somewhere comfortable for both of you. Maybe have the discussion over lunch or coffee.

The objective here is to find a place that encourages open conversation and improvement.

Be Professional, not Formal

Setting the right tone is important. It should be relaxed, so you both feel it’s an open environment to share, and professional.

When meeting employees for the review, act casually. But at the same time, don’t be friendly just in order to soften constructive criticism.

Employees are adults. They should be treated as such.

Don’t skip around the details to avoid hurting their feelings, but present both their wins and areas of improvement in a positive light.

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Be honest. Say, “Hey, this is what’s going on. Here’s what we’d like to see in order for you to improve.” The point of the review is to fix what is broken and praise what not only isn’t broken, but what is working well.

With being professional, I’d like to encourage you to not have the critical eye of a teacher –having to meet a student one-on-one after class to discuss a failing grade— but with the friendly guise of a tutor seeking to help a student improve. Andre Lavoie said,

“Performance reviews should be a dialogue between employer and employee — not a one-way discussion. This process is not only designed to develop employees, but also to evaluate a company’s leadership. Encourage employees to supply feedback by asking questions such as, “How can I help to make your job easier?” or “What don’t you like about my management style?”

That being said, there will be things the employees will have to say to you. Embrace their criticism in return, and heed their feedback if it’s valid.

Use Your Reviews for the Big Picture

In the introduction, I mentioned how F. John Reh said that the annual review was a waste of time.

He proposed that employers should continue to give feedback to employees regularly, instead of waiting to do it once a year.

With that said, the performance review should be just that: a review.

It should look over everything the employee has done. Nothing on it should be a surprise because you’ve already spoken about it with that employee in the past.

You don’t want your employees coming back during the review saying, “I didn’t even know this was a problem!”

At that point it’s too late, the review has already had an effect on their growth potential, productivity, and their income.

Tell them early on through weekly inspections and conversations what they need to do to improve.

That way they won’t feel betrayed when the review comes.

Don’t Encourage Competition with the Reviews

Friendly competition between employees can be beneficial for your company as a whole. It encourages them to try harder and push their limits in order to complete the task at hand.

However, when it comes to reviews, you don’t want to do this.

Friendly competition, by nature, doesn’t usually have much risk associated with it. But the moment you put something on the line, like a paycheck, or job security, suddenly there is anxiety and stress, and that friendly competition suddenly changes into a battle to see who can come out on top.

In an article for SHRM, Dana Wilkes said:

“As soon as you do that, performance reviews are just an excuse to promote yourself and trash your teammates, I hear a lot about how a real professional would never do that. If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.”


How does your company handle performance reviews?

What are some other ways that you can come up with that can help improve the way performance reviews are conducted?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Ben Schmitt is a Marketing Strategist at Skykit and writes about employee engagement on their blog. www.skykit.com

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