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How to Write an Effective Performance Review (+ Free Guide)

A performance review isn’t as much a form as it is a process—a means rather than an end.

It is a system of ongoing feedback; recognition; and, when necessary, redirection that helps you, the supervisor, lead effectively and stand out as a rarity among your peers. It also represents a system of ongoing engagement with your subordinates that creates for them an environment of job satisfaction and motivation (which, of course, typically results in greater retention).

As you’re preparing to write a subordinate’s performance review, keep the following suggested guidelines in mind in order to amplify the benefits of this tried-and-true management tool:

6 Performance Review Writing Tips

  1. Do your research.

The better prepared you are for the performance appraisal, the more productive your discussion will be.

Use this checklist to make sure that you have everything you need handy before you start your performance appraisal:

  • Employee job description
  • Copy of the individual’s prior year performance review
  • Employee performance journal or ‘‘critical incidents diary’’
  • Completed employee self-evaluation forms
  • Record of employee attendance
  • Recent example of employee’s work (when appropriate)
  • Examples of work problems you want to discuss
  • List of available training courses appropriate for employee
  • Manual of company policies and rules

Go over the following checklist to determine whether you know all you need to about your employees before holding an appraisal meeting. Don’t wait until the last minute; give yourself time to find the answers you need.

  • Employee’s length of service with company
  • Current projects employee is working on
  • Progress employee is making in current project
  • Employee’s educational and experience background
  • Date of employee’s last promotion
  • How employee relates to coworkers, clients, and others
  • Level of employee’s technical skills
  1. Include examples of acceptable or poor performance.

The easiest way to encourage yourself to provide proof of your perceptions is to use the phrase ‘‘For example’’ at least three times in an individual performance appraisal.

Managers often make sweeping comments about perceptions without documenting the factual circumstances that justify their points of view. You could therefore easily turn a perception statement like ‘‘Your planning and organizational skills are satisfactory, but you sometimes require additional assistance in this area’’ into something more concrete and instructional for the employee by including an example.

  1. Document your efforts to support your employee.

You should document the efforts you’ve made to help the employee meet performance standards throughout the review period. When writing annual performance appraisals, for

example, you should include the fact that you gave the employee a copy of the attendance policy, paid for her to attend a workshop on dealing with interpersonal conflict in the work

place, or encouraged her to take an accounting course at a local college. Such documentation will serve as evidence that you acted responsibly by attempting to proactively rehabilitate the worker.

  1. Use the terminology “needs improvement” cautiously.

In reality, stating that performance or behavior ‘‘needs improvement’’ is not the same as stating that it does not meet company standards or is unsatisfactory. Similarly, documenting that ‘‘Richard has been spoken to regarding excessive absenteeism and tardiness’’ does not convey that his performance was unacceptable.

Don’t assume that the employee understood (or a jury would agree) that just because you spoke about performance which needed improvement, it was assumed to be substandard. Instead, clearly document when performance is unacceptable, unsatisfactory, or fails to meet standards.

  1. Expand your basic ideas and strengthen the clarity of your message.

When documenting core competency or technical issues, expand your basic ideas by employing a ‘‘by . . .’’ format, like this:

Regularly places support staff in positions of leadership by appointing them subject matter experts in particular technical areas or by selecting them for workshop/seminar facilitator roles.

Similarly, when documenting future development goals, you could easily strengthen the clarity of your message by applying the ‘‘I expect you to . . . by . . .’’ format. For example,

it would be simple to turn a statement like:

‘‘In the upcoming review period, you must improve your client relations skills and better utilize your time.’’

into a more instructional, future-oriented statement by applying the ‘‘I expect you to . . . by . . .’’ structure, which would look like this:

‘‘I expect you to improve your client relations skills by following up with customers within two hours of their initial calls, by meeting them in their offices rather than asking them to come to yours, and by maintaining weekly contact regarding the status of their work order processing.’’

  1. Allow for comments from your employee.  

The best way to prepare yourself and your employee for the meeting is for each of you to fill out complementary forms that cover two major areas:

  1. Job Analysis, which is an evaluation and analysis of what the job entails. It identifies and assigns weight to each of the employee’s areas of accountability.
  2. Performance/Work Habits Review, which assigns a numerical rating for each characteristic.

You can create your own forms to best suit your needs, or you can use the samples in Chapter 3 of Productive Performance Appraisals.

Ask your employee to come to your performance review meeting prepared to discuss the following:

  • Job performance since the last review
  • Personal career objectives
  • Problems or concerns about the present job
  • Things the employee would like to see change—personally and for the department in general
  • Goals for improving future performance and productivity

Bringing it all together

These tips should help to remind you to complete your thoughts and provide appropriate examples for your statements. Selectively added to the annual review at strategic points, it will add critical mass to the statements that you make and justify your perceptions.

They will likewise help you clearly outline your performance expectations and how they will be concretely measured.

Clarity in your written message will not only protect your company from potential outside legal challenges; it will help build a shared sense of open communication, a greater sense of partnership, and increased accountability with your workers.

Get a head start on performance reviews!

Don't let performance review season sneak up on you again! Download our free resource: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Effective Performance Reviews.

Inside the guide, you'll get:

  • A performance review preparation checklist
  • 245 performance review phrases to rate employees on the top 6 skills of the future (i.e. adaptability, diversity, teamwork, and more)
  • 6 performance review writing tips to clarify goals, expectations, and feedback

It's never too early—or too late—to practice communicating with your employees more effectively and efficiently.

Want to read more? Get the book!

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Paul Falcone

Paul Falcone is CHRO of the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, CA, and he's held senior-level HR positions with Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, and City of Hope. He has extensive experience in entertainment, healthcare/biotech, and financial services, including in international, nonprofit, and union environments.

Paul is the author of a number of bestselling HarperCollins, AMACOM, and SHRM Books, many of which have been ranked as bestsellers in the categories of human resources management, labor & employment law, business mentoring & coaching, communication in management, and business decision-making and problem-solving.

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