Under Review: Rethinking the Employee-Evaluation Process

If your company does employee reviews on a quarterly basis, you're going to need help keeping track of all those moving parts.
Guest Writer

It's a rare personality that enjoys giving less-than-glowing feedback to an employee. In fact, when Zenger Folkman surveyed almost 8,000 managers, fully 44 percent said that giving their team members negative feedback stressed them out. Another 20 percent said they simply refused to do it. Ever.

Related: Pain-Free Performance Reviews? Possible. Here are 5 Tips for Getting There.

What might be even more surprising were the 37 percent of managers who claimed to never provide positive feedback: That's a dismaying figure, especially considering the study's finding about employee perceptions of a manager's ability to communicate honestly.

Specifically, employees predicated those perceptions on a manager's willingness to give feedback to employees in positive ways.

Honest, constructive feedback, then, is one of the most valuable gifts anyone can give or receive. It allows us to grow, improve and avoid repeating past mistakes. Most of us want it, and younger professionals, in particular, crave it.

So, it makes sense that companies that have instituted quarterly reviews to rethink that process. Reviews after all give managers the chance to provide candid assessments of employee performance, and those reviews' value increases exponentially when they facilitate the open exchange of feedback between reviewer and employee.

When feedback backfires

One big problem is that the typical quarterly review format requires some managers to go through the process with dozens of employees -- sometimes more. depending on company size. What should be a productive experience becomes a burden for those managers, diminishing the quality of feedback they're able to provide and ultimately wasting everyone's precious time.

At our company, Hawke Media, once we reached about 30 employees, I realized our review process needed an upgrade. To illustrate: I had an individual performance review with someone from our creative team, and I wanted to schedule a quick follow-up meeting two weeks later to gauge his progress on a small project.

Naively, I said something along the lines of, "Hey, let's knock this out in a couple of weeks, and then we can have a sort of supplemental quarterly review." But when I looked up at my calendar, I realized I was scheduled to still be in quarterly reviews with other employees at that time.

Meeting with as many people as possible can be valuable, but given my other responsibilities, that model wasn't, and isn't, scalable. That's why I began handing off my quarterly responsibilities to department heads, and now no one reviews more than 15 people.

Revamping your review protocol

If you plan on reviewing employees every 90 days, you can't be afraid to delegate that responsibility. For me, it's been a game changer. If you're looking for other ways to improve the process, consider the following lessons I've learned through this experience:

1. Listen more than you talk. If you don't believe me, ask Richard Branson. He suggests taking notes whenever you sit in on a meeting or discussion with others, as it helps you listen better -- and avoid dominating the whole conversation. Branson was talking about entrepreneurial life in general, but his advice totally applied to the process of reviewing employees.

In most reviews, I have three or four things to say, and I try to cap it there. If you can identify three or four points you want to discuss with an employee before the meeting, you can use those to shape a conversation in which you should primarily be a listener. When you do talk, be succinct and direct in your feedback.

Avoid saying things such as, "You know . . . it seems as if a lot of people just feel that you're too negative." Instead, give employees actionable, encouraging advice that clearly shows them how they can make progress in their role and reflects that you believe they can do that.

Related: To Motivate Your Employees, Give Honest Feedback

2. Keep track of feedback throughout the quarter. No one is perfect at this, but I'm emphasizing it because it's critical. Throughout the quarter, have a system in place where you can give employees ongoing feedback, allowing you to make note of their progress.

Don't end up basing your analysis of their performance over the previous three months on what you happen to remember from just the past week. That assessment wouldn't be accurate or fair. So, find a means to create and keep notes.

We use Trakstar to establish and track progress on benchmarks and goals, but it doesn't matter which platform you use. Just be sure to keep track of the feedback being given and how performance and key performance metrics have changed. That information will be the focal point of that employee's next quarterly assessment.

3. Review the reviewers. In the past, I handled quarterly reviews partly because other people leading departments or holding management positions were fairly new to those roles.

I wanted to show how productive reviews should be conducted; so I'd often have new managers sit with me as I reviewed an employee and modeled the process. After I started delegating the responsibility for this task, I implemented manager reviews to essentially "review the reviewer" and provide constructive feedback.

Consequently, I haven't been relying solely on manager reviews to evaluate employee performance -- that would make the process too subjective. Instead, I give employees the opportunity to review themselves, their peers and the manager reviewing them. I'm in good company: Google does this, too.

In fact, at that search giant, managers select a group of junior peers to review their -- the managers' -- actual interactions and style. Then, the managers receive a list of things they should do more of in their quarterly reviews.

Additionally, the junior peers come up with one action item for each employee the manager has reviewed; the goal is to help those individual employees make a bigger difference at the company.

4. Ensure anonymity. After you've got an efficient system in place, remember to make all peer reviews anonymous, to ensure accurate feedback. Dig into discrepancies when ratings seem out of alignment. Reconciling those major differences can often lead to real insight and growth.

In sum, the quarterly review isn't likely to disappear any time soon. In business, traditions die hard, and when they're tied up in bureaucratic paperwork and reporting, they sometimes do more harm than good.

Related: Employee Reviews Should Include the CEO

So, do yourself a favor -- think about how you might cut down on the amount of time people feel they've wasted during quarterly review season at your company. Using these strategies, you can simultaneously reap the benefits of more compelling metrics and more accurate, productive evaluations.

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