Getting through performance evaluations for each and every one of your direct reports can be tough. Whether your company has annual performance reviews, or more frequent performance conversations, you're trying to be as thoughtful as possible while also articulating, in detail, what your employees are bringing to the table.
Whether it's your first time, or you have a lot of experience talking about employee performance with direct reports, this can all be very exhausting and make the review period somewhat of a strain: there's a reason there are so many lists of performance review examples out there. Most can give you a good start, providing certain phrases and action words to use— but they don't really help you figure out the formula for effective performance conversations. In fact, they can stick you in a loop of picking empty 'performance review phrases' like "team player" and "creative solutions" that don't actually talk about employee performance.
So rather than just give a list of as many examples as we could think of, we're going to take you through a few specific examples, and explain exactly why they do and don't work. You'll leave this article with new ideas and a full understanding of how you can frame points in your review templates, comments, and conversation.
Performance reviews are more than just lists of phrases about an employee.
An employee review should be a constructive conversation where you can give (and get) both positive and negative feedback regarding a person's performance, set goals, and think about their development. They are not meant to be a pure critique or the time to “solve” every issue with an employee's performance, and all parties should ultimately go in with a positive attitude. They are tools comprised of a few different components, including:
For a complete overview of all things performance review, head over to “HR’s Guide to Performance Review Questions” and “How the Performance Review Impacts Your Bottom Line (and How to Make It Better).”
When done right, a key part of any performance review process can be evaluating an employee's performance through a series of standardized questions. These surveys can help your company streamline evaluation, and can also help shape the types of feedback managers give. That's why taking the time to standardize a customizable performance review template for your company (or by department) is a great way to formulate more effective manager reviews and/or conversations regarding a person's performance. When you set the criteria, you need to ask specific questions about an employee's job performance and how they are fulfilling their job description without putting words in a manager's mouth.
Let's look at a few examples for template questions and break down why they do or do not work. At the end of the examples, you should have the knowledge you need to craft your own expert question.
The first thing to notice about this question is that the wording of “good to have on the team” is very subjective. Is every single person good to have on the team at all times? Most team leaders would say, no— but, overall, most employees are effective team members. That means that this question has too big a scope to be truly helpful.
The thoroughness here might seem appealing in contrast to the previous open-ended question, but this is way too specific and packs in too much. One answer shouldn't have to cover attendance, participation, and presentations; it also combines to focus on one attribute that's a checklist of traits.
This is a much better question. It is geared towards a specific trait — giving feedback and praise — that directly affects an employee's contributions to the team. There are two parts to this question, which would make for a good short answer, but can also be split up into a multiple choice with both / just one / just the other / neither.
When you are heading in to write a performance review, you need to know how to write about your employees. Much like a résumé, employee reviews often rely on using action words— “improves,” “shows,” “displays,” etc. It's great to have a few of these handy up your sleeve, but they are not the be-all and end-all of writing a good employee performance review. What you write about an employee makes a difference in their experience of the work environment and in their career path. It is worth taking the time to understand what makes a good statement about an employee and why. Not only will it help them, it will also help you: when you have to go to bat for an employee or need to talk about the efficacy of your team, you will have a good foundation for those moments.
Let's look at a few examples for performance review phrases and break down why they do or do not work. At the end of the examples, you should have the knowledge you need to write about your employees.
This is a generic statement that isn't backed up with specifics. It reads as positive feedback, but is subjective and unsubstantiated. A better way to say it might be:
This identifies what the employee is doing — participation and follow up questions — and what the outcomes of that action are — to build a supportive culture. It is showing the employee's good performance as a driver of positive company culture in a way that can easily be corroborated.
Extremes like “always” and “never” are rarely true. Because of this, they can rarely can be backed up (do you really have a comprehensive attendance record written out?) by evidence, which will make them feel singled out and damage employee engagement. (I'm not always! late!). Although recurring behavior can feel like an always or never, your points can be made in a more specific and less inflammatory way.
This is a better way to talk about a recurring behavior. It's more specific and more objective, and clearly takes into account multiple viewpoints. It also gives space for elaboration. How does the review manager know the employee is late to project meetings? Have they discussed showing up late to 1:1s or check-ins, and did the behavior change? How disruptive do others find it? Instead of being a blunt, negative statement, this opens the floor to discussion of the whats and whys of an employee's behavior.
Reviews are more than the sum of their prep work and writing. They're also the performance review meetings, and the ensuing conversations with employees to engage and develop them by setting new goals. If you're not collaborating to set new performance goals and talk next steps with employees, reviews aren't as effective.
But the way goals are set is also important. Goal setting is a great way to shift from constructive feedback to empowerment to end on a note where employees feel supported in taking their performance to the next level — if the goals are well-constructed.
Let's look at a few performance review examples for goal setting and break down why they do or do not work. At the end of the examples, you should have the knowledge you need to help set constructive goals for professional development.
This goal is too broad and doesn't give the employee any next steps or an action plan. Of course, an employee who is struggling with presentations wants to improve — but they really need help figuring out how. Because of that, this feels a little patronizing and doesn't help them with problem-solving (or empower them to take their presentation skills to the next level).
This is a much better goal because it helps an employee to understand how to work towards their desired result. It's also tackling a specific way the employee is bad at presenting: public speaking — not slide order or length or graphics choices — and crafting a development plan to address that specific need.
This is a bad goal because it doesn't address the root of an employee's problem — they know work needs to be on time and chances are they want to get there, but there's a roadblock like time management or accountability, etc. Understanding what that roadblock is — not simply identifying the problem — is the key to setting the goal and creating an action plan to achieve it.
This, in contrast, tackles the organizational problem of an employee and forces them to be accountable because of a shared calendar system that they have to update. It is teaching them a skill of planning and coordination, while also beefing up their communication skills, and helping them take charge of their own work.
At the end of the day, performance reviews only work if you do. They are hard to get right and require a lot of thought on the part of the review manager and/or human resources department. To reduce them to a list of phrases is not really helping you develop your employees or helping you evaluate your direct reports, which will ultimately reflect in the progress of company goals. Taking a little extra time to work through how you are talking about and to your employees will make a big difference when it comes to the efficacy of your performance reviews.