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11 Min Read

How to Write Effective Employee Performance Reviews

Genevieve Michaels

What Is an Employee Performance Review?

Touching base. Checking in. Looking forward. These are all terms that should describe the ideal employee performance review. Best case scenario? A manager accurately communicates an employee’s performance in a way that encourages them to improve on their weaknesses while having a better sense of how they can rely on their strengths. No miscommunication, no misunderstandings.

It doesn’t always go that way.

Employee performance reviews can be annual or quarterly, though many organizations use both:

  • Annual performance reviews are often tied directly to compensation, promotion, and benefits. The purpose is to get an accurate, common understanding of how far along an employee is on their path to their next goal, whether that’s a raise or a promotion.
  • Quarterly performance reviews might address compensation, but they’re generally more about building up an employee’s strengths and addressing weaknesses. They’re used to set and review quarterly goals, usually to improve performance ahead of annual reviews.

An employee performance review can be formal or informal. The former is more structured, following a pre-defined process that’s standardized across the organization, the department, or a specific team. Any performance review that seriously discusses questions around compensation or promotion will usually be more formal.

On the other hand, an informal review can happen as needed, and both its frequency and structure are up to individual managers. It’s meant more as a check-in so managers and employees are on the same page.

Here’s how you can write effective employee performance reviews of every kind.

How to write employee performance reviews

Most organizations have a pre-established process for writing employee performance reviews, and it’s especially important that you follow it for formal reviews. That said, performance reviews generally follow the same steps.

Step 1: Review the employee’s current job description

This might seem unnecessary at first brush, but you’d be surprised how many performance issues can be solved by regularly reviewing an employee’s job description. Whether it’s responsibilities falling by the wayside or a workload that would make Atlas buckle, taking time to go over what an employee should actually be doing with their time can be the first step to finding a solution—making it an essential part of writing an employee performance review.

Step 2: Review past employee performance reviews

Whether you’re dealing with an annual or quarterly performance review, getting a sense of an employee’s past performance is essential before you move forward. If conversations about raises and promotions are happening, it’s essential to know where an employee is coming from before jumping in.

Consider this part of the homework you should do before a performance review. You should also include a few lines about historical reviews in each new review.

Step 3: Highlight areas of improvement

While employees might shudder at the thought of a performance review, readying themselves for a deluge of negative comments, in practice it should rarely happen this way. Leading the performance review with not just positive feedback, but by covering any improvements your employee made, can be extremely rewarding for them. It will motivate them to keep working on any areas of improvement you highlight in future performance reviews.

Step 4: Identify strengths and weaknesses (and chart progress)

Managers should have a strong grasp of the strengths and weaknesses of every team member, and every team member should know their own. One of the best ways to do this is to identify and track them in employee performance reviews.

When you write a performance review, spend time listing strengths and weaknesses and covering the progress an employee has made on them. Are their strengths stagnating or improving? Are they working to improve on their weaknesses (or find ways to work around them)?

Step 5: Provide actionable goals

An employee performance review shouldn’t be a static, passive document that begins and ends at the end of the manager’s pen. It should help employees forge a path forward for the next quarter, the next year, and even their career as a whole. After reviewing strengths, weaknesses, and performance, craft concrete goals your employee can follow. The best way to create strong goals? Make them SMART:

  • Specific: Identify the specific actions an employee should pursue and the results they should create.
  • Measurable: Use metrics and numbers to quantify progress for each goal.
  • Achievable: Keep each goal realistic, or you’ll only demotivate your employees.
  • Relevant: Make each goal relevant to an employee’s personal objectives and the organization’s broader goals.
  • Time-bound: Set a timeline for each goal, like the next quarterly or annual review.

Step 6: Include 360-degree feedback

360-degree feedback involves gathering feedback from a variety of sources, representing just about everyone an employee might work with. That includes managers and other superiors, but feedback is sourced from peers, subordinates, and colleagues, too.

Instead of the more traditional top-down employee performance review, 360-degree feedback helps build a more complete portrait of an employee and their performance. It can take a bit more work, unless you use a performance management platform with this sort of review built in—like 15Five.

Step 7: Ask for input

The best employee performance reviews are a two-way street. Not only should you ask an employee for their perspective on anything and everything you’ve covered in the review, but you should ask for feedback on the process itself, too. This is especially important if your organization is still hammering out the performance review process.

You have to strike the right balance between keeping the performance review from turning into an open forum where an employee voices all their grievances and giving them enough room to speak their mind. This balance comes from an established process and regular practice.

21 examples of questions and action items for performance reviews

Two elements are too often absent from employee performance reviews: questions and action items.

Questions allow managers to get input directly from the party involved in the review (i.e., the employee). What better way is there to know what’s really going on behind the numbers?

Action items are how you set performance goals for employees and help them take agency when it comes to improving their performance, working on their weaknesses, and making their strengths into superpowers.

Here are a few examples of each to help you integrate them into your performance reviews.

14 questions for employee performance reviews

Questions should surface the information you either have no real access to or that can confirm/debunk assumptions made in your initial review.

Performance review questions about communication

  • Do you feel like you’re communicating effectively with team members and other departments?
  • What is your ideal communication method or style? Do you think it works well with the rest of the team?
  • Are there any issues around communication you’ve noticed in your own work?

Quality of work questions

  • Would you say the quality of your work has increased, decreased, or stayed the same since your last performance review?
  • Were there any tasks or projects where you believe you performed especially well?
  • Was there a task or project you felt was a bit beyond your current ability?

Teamwork and collaboration

  • What were some highlights of your work with the rest of the team over the past quarter (or year)?
  • If you collaborated with other departments, how did it go?
  • Were there some recurring problems you noticed in your collaboration with other teams or departments?

Problem-solving and decision-making

  • Describe a situation where you ran into a particularly thorny problem and how you solved it.
  • Have you been involved in particularly important decisions this past quarter (or year)? How did you contribute to them?

Time management and prioritization

  • Can you walk me through how you prioritize your work?
  • Do you feel like there isn’t enough time in the day to do all your work?
  • Were there tasks or projects you worked on that were delayed or postponed? Why?

7 action items for employee performance reviews

Action items should give employees clear guidelines for what they should do post-performance review, in the hopes of demonstrating marked improvement the next time you meet with them.

For building up strengths

  • Offer to mentor colleagues, peers, or contacts in [employee’s strength.]
  • Seek out and consume resources in [employee’s strength], like courses, books, or seminars. Share learnings with the team.

For improving on weaknesses

  • Build, pitch, and follow through on a plan to improve on [employee’s weakness].
  • Seek out mentorship from a peer, a manager, or a contact for whom [employee’s weakness] is a strength.

For demonstrating raise or promotion potential

  • Make your work more visible in the appropriate channels.
  • Offer to take on responsibilities that demonstrate you have the right skills for the role you’re shooting for.

4 things to avoid during an employee performance review

Writing an employee performance review can be a stressful event, both for managers and employees. That makes it a perfect time for something to go wrong. Here are some things to avoid if you want to keep your performance reviews productive.

Harsh language

As a manager, you need to realize that it’s all too easy for what you see as productive feedback to sound harsh. You need to be mindful of the language you use to communicate any potentially negative topics, from an employee’s weaknesses to situations where their performance has been sup-bar.

You don’t want to diminish the point you’re trying to make or the feedback you’re sharing, but be considerate of an employee’s feelings. Work on strategies to communicate what you’re saying accurately while treating them like a person.

Making it a one-way conversation

Too many organizations still treat employee performance reviews as a monologue, with the occasional question thrown in just to make sure the recipient is still listening.

While there are definitely points you’ll need to get across in a performance review, you’ll benefit more from treating it like a conversation than just reading off a script at your employees. By asking questions—real questions—and offering space for employees to share their perspectives, you’ll reveal situations and solutions that would otherwise go completely unnoticed.

Focusing too much on the negative

If you’re writing a performance review for an employee who is struggling in their day-to-day, you need to address it. There’s no doubt of that. You’ll do no favors to them by trying to downplay their weaknesses just to make them feel better.

But unless you’re dealing with this kind of situation, you need to be mindful of giving too much space to weaknesses and areas of improvement. This could lead you to ignore important strengths that can motivate employees to take the next step in their career, be more productive, and find their best selves at work.

Even employees who are struggling need to hear about the things they’re doing right. Nothing is more demotivating for someone who knows they’re having a hard time than to hear their manager confirm their fears without providing any positive feedback—or avenues for improvement.

Not giving actionable feedback

An employee performance review that goes over that employee’s strengths, weaknesses, and avenues for growth might be useful for the organization and manager giving it. Is it as useful for the employee, though? Or are they just getting a report on their performance with no way to know what they should do?

Actionable feedback, whether positive or negative, gives them a logical next step. In the same way you wouldn’t end a meeting without any action items—otherwise what’s the point—you shouldn’t end a performance review without anything your employee can act on.

It takes a bit more time and forethought, but why write an employee performance review at all if you’re not giving them a path forward?

Get high-performers across the board with the right review process

When managers write an employee performance review, they’re distilling inputs from that employee, their teammates, and the projects they worked on into a single document that’s a snapshot of how they perform. But it shouldn’t just be a static report that you complete and ship off to a higher-up. At its best, the performance review can chart a course for everyone on your team to reach their fullest potential—and contribute more to the organization overall.

Need to improve your performance reviews? If you want a platform that turns your ad-hoc performance review process into a living, dynamic workflow with up-to-date data, find out what 15Five can do here.