Do you supervise people? Here are some strong opinions about performance reviews.

The first time I officially supervised another person was 26 years ago. (It’s true I’m the oldest of five children and hours of “babysitting” my siblings was a fine training ground for management.) Over the years, I’ve developed my own philosophy and pet peeves about performance management.

I was planning to be a high school Spanish teacher. No teaching jobs were immediately available since I graduated in December so, instead, I fell into a career in human resources management. I was hired by the Manpower Planning and Staffing Unit at the Pan American Health Organization for one reason. At the time, I spoke fluent Spanish. My job was to administer typing and shorthand tests in Spanish and interview Spanish-speaking candidates for administrative openings. I enjoyed this first job enough that I stuck with HR for 16 years.

I learned a lot in those early years about HR and about communication. My work included recruitment, employee relations, supervisory and management training, compensation, and performance management. When HR is done well, it requires communication skills. My HR jobs gave me on-the-job training on how to communicate with multiple audiences. Most of you won’t be surprised to know that norms and techniques I could rely on in the corporate or non-profits sectors had to be adjusted a bit when I took an HR job in higher ed.

This post is not about giving team members feedback year round. That’s important and I do it. My focus here is the typical once a year process for performance review. Here’s what I have to say on the topic:

If you don’t spend about three hours per person, you’re not doing it right.
The reviews you write (yes, they should be written!) for each member of your team should include a lot of descriptive detail about the employee’s work and accomplishments. Thank heavens for web-based calendars. I go back 12 months to refresh myself about meetings, assignments, and projects individuals took part in. You can also ask team members to put together a list of accomplishments for you to review. After spending a couple of hours on background and writing, you should schedule a one-hour meeting to talk about the last year and plan for the year ahead. I mean face to face, no interruptions, you and the employee talking.

Give ’em a break and share the written evaluation ahead of time.
Most people take an annual review seriously and even the most competent individuals get a bit revved up about a meeting to discuss performance. I think it’s only fair to let someone read the evaluation in advance and have an opportunity to reflect on it before your in-person discussion. I usually send the written review on the day prior to the meeting. This also means that your meeting can be more effective since the individual you’re meeting with isn’t trying to absorb the “rating” or read what you wrote while you’re talking. Perhaps, the individual will come to the meeting with a few items you forgot to include.

Most people really do want to know where they stand.
Sometimes, an evaluation is not all sunshine and light. (Folks, this can be true even if you do periodic feedback during the performance year.) These are tough, particularly when someone’s performance has slipped from acceptable to unacceptable. But you are paid to help turn this around and honest discussion and documentation of what’s not going well is needed. Your written summary should detail areas for improvement in clear, straightforward language. And, you should go into the performance review meeting with notes for specific examples of sub-par performance. Most of the time, the individual is already aware that improvement is needed. And, he or she will often recall examples of work that wasn’t acceptable before you do. But occasionally, you’ll come across the individual with a completely unrealistic assessment of his/her own performance. In that case, you will need to state specific instances where work wasn’t acceptable to support the lower rating. Take the notes just in case.

Don’t start the conversation with, “These things really don’t mean anything anyway.”
A pet peeve of mine is managers who have the attitude that performance reviews don’t matter because true merit pay practices aren’t in place within the organization. I say, so what? Read up on why people leave jobs. It’s not because of money. It’s because of bosses. Your employees deserve to hear from you in a thoughtful, deliberate way at least once a year; especially when you can’t offer them a pay increase. Take it seriously. People can always tell when you’ve slapped something together and seem checked out or unprepared for the face-to-face conversation.

Ask how you can help.
I promise, this is my last pet peeve – managers who don’t realize they have an obligation to try to turn things around. I always close my performance review meetings by asking people what I can do to support their work, their career and personal goals, and their attempts to improve. If people report to you, you are responsible for developing them and mentoring them. If you do your job well, they’ll be ready for the next position on the career path they choose. Mentoring requires time and, too often, supervisors view it as an interruption of the “real work” they do each day. Developing a team of individuals into a high performing unit should be your goal and until you make it a priority, your own performance is sub par. (Enough said.)

This post was fun to write. Maybe I need to write more about individual and team development. I think I will.

5 thoughts on “Do you supervise people? Here are some strong opinions about performance reviews.

  1. This post should be given to every manager who has to write reviews.

    The only thing I’d add is this: be timely. I once worked for an organization where reviews were routinely given six to eighteen months behind schedule, which really did render them meaningless. AND they were tied to salary increases, which meant that any increase in pay came that late, as well.

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