How to … conduct a performance review

by 20 Feb 2007

While performance reviews are still used in part to assess what has and hasn’t been achieved over the past 12 months, they are increasingly viewed as an opportunity for employers and staff to plan proactively for the year ahead.

Old-style appraisals were, arguably, often little more than a forum for the employer to criticise and point out an individual’s failings. Now appraisers can see the benefits of taking a partnership approach, using the review to assess and address future challenges for both the individual and the company.

Carried out properly, the performance review should be a far less intimidating experience for the employee than it was in the past, and genuinely productive for the employer.

Where do I start?

Look at the annual event as one of several opportunities throughout the year to assess performance. With a program of meetings in place, reviews can be all the richer, as you can call on objectives agreed and discussions held at previous meetings, and build on progress made.

“The golden rule of an effective review is that there should be no surprises,” explains Stuart Duff, head of development at occupational psychologist Pearn Kandola. “Regular meetings throughout the year, focused on evaluating progress and responding to new challenges, are essential to avoid this.”

Prepare for the review

You might feel you know the employee well from daily interaction, but you still need to do your homework. Pull out last year’s appraisal, and go through what was covered. Make it your business to know their employment history and to discover where their aspirations lie. Use feedback from other sources or colleagues to glean a fuller picture if necessary.

Be alert to any change in their personal circumstances that may have a bearing on how they think about work, such as getting married or starting a family.

Try to anticipate any questions they might ask, as they will be counting on you to have the answers. They will also expect a frank discussion about pay and career development. Finally, give the employee sufficient time to prepare for the review, and get them to consider how they’ve performed over the past 12 months.

Impose a structure

It is essential to have a structure for the review beforehand. This should allow for a general introduction explaining the purpose of the review; an assessment of the year’s objectives and discussion as to what extent they have been met (and, if not, how they might be); an outline of future objectives and goals; and formulation of a personal development plan (PDP), which should include any training required to meet objectives.

Time should also be built in for discussion and questions from the employee.

Discussing performance

Both sides will gain more from the exercise if you have an ability to open up the conversation and work through some of the wider issues. Take care to listen actively and respond appropriately to what is being said. Remain objective and balance constructive criticism with positive feedback.

“Set an appropriately constructive tone early on in the meeting,” says Duff. “Engage the individual in a conversation about themselves and allow them to do most of the talking. Encourage them to look ahead and explore options, rather than narrowing things down too quickly.”

Make sure you jot down any targets and objectives agreed in the meeting.

Ending the review

Ensure the employee clearly understands their objectives and has a realistic picture of their career and pay prospects for the year ahead. Double check that they are satisfied they have been able to air any issues or concerns – the employee must leave the room feeling that they have been listened to.

Finally, put a date in the diary for a follow-up meeting in six weeks’ time to discuss progress made against targets and objectives.

Second opinion on conducting performance reviews

Stuart Duff, head of development, Pearn Kandola

What are the common mistakes when conducting a review?

The most common mistake in a performance review meeting is to treat the occasion like a tick-box exercise, rather than encouraging an open and thought-provoking discussion. It is also easy to become distracted by relatively minor issues and problems that should be dealt with elsewhere. The third most common mistake is to use the meeting as a way of 'dumping' feedback on individuals and focusing on their weaknesses, rather than seeking to understand how they could make the most of their talents in the year ahead.

What was the most difficult performance review you have ever handled?

The vast majority have been positive, forward-focused experiences. But the few tough challenges that I have encountered - for instance, individuals who would not listen to feedback, disconnected themselves from the organisation or felt disappointed by a lack of upward opportunities - were never a great surprise. Generally, these situations were resolved by making time to reflect, question and explore what was genuinely achievable in the given circumstances.

Performance reviews are frequently cited as one of the most loathed exercises. What's the best way to change this perception?

This will depend very much on the way that the organisation encourages - or inhibits - the review process. Where little information and support are provided, managers and their reports are likely to feel uncertain or anxious about the process. They may even see the review as a lottery that is unfair or unrelated to their current circumstances. And for sure, they always seem to occur at the busiest time of the year.

To change these perceptions, the performance review system needs to have explicit links to the overall aims of the organisation, and be consistently applied at all levels. Communication and training may - in some situations - help to reduce the fear factor, if the benefits of learning, motivation and opportunity are all reinforced.

For more information

Harvard Review on Appraising Employee Performance, HarvardBusinessSchool Press, ISBN 1591397685

By Scott Beagrie. Courtesy of Personnel Today magazine. www.personneltoday.com

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